D.C. Council members on Monday quizzed State Superintendent of Education Jesús Aguirre about an unreleased audit showing that city officials cannot account for nearly $10 million in federal taxpayer dollars meant for a tuition assistance program that helps D.C. students pay for college.
The audit, first reported by The Washington Post, also describes weak internal controls at Aguirre’s agency, the Office of the State Superintendent of Education, which manages the D.C. Tuition Assistance Grant program, known as D.C. TAG.
Aguirre described the audit, dated Sept. 30, 2013, as a draft with findings that are premature. But he acknowledged that he and other officials have not figured out how much money should be in TAG’s accounts.
“What I’m hearing is that you really aren’t going to be able to challenge some of these underlying assumptions, which are that you can’t account for these dollars,” said David A. Catania (I-At Large), chairman of the council’s Education Committee. “Whether it’s a final draft or not, you still won’t be able to account for these dollars.”
TAG provides District students with up to $10,000 apiece for out-of-state public schools and up to $2,500 per year for historically black colleges and private schools in the Washington area. Congress has appropriated $317 million for the subsidy since its inception in 2000, helping more than 20,000 students pay for college.
The auditors questioned two large expenditures — $5.5 million in fiscal 2004 and $4 million in 2008 — that they said could not be explained by officials at OSSE or the city’s Office of the Chief Financial Officer.
TAG funds left unspent at the end of each year can be carried over to the next, so uncertainty about expenditures in one year can cascade into the future. City officials have estimated the carry-over from 2012 to 2013 to have been between $2.6 million and $22 million, the audit says. The auditors urged the two agencies to agree on the correct amount as soon as possible, but that hasn’t happened.
Though the audit was completed in September, OSSE did not share it until late January or early February, said Deloras A. Shepherd, associate chief financial officer. Asked why OSSE waited so long to share the information, Aguirre apologized.
“I don’t have an answer for that,” he said.
Amid the uncertainty about how much money was available for students, OSSE officials last year requested and received more than $9 million in local tax dollars to supplement its congressional appropriation. TAG has never had to turn away eligible students for lack of funds.
Catania and fellow Education Committee member David Grosso (I-At Large) expressed exasperation that the agency had asked for extra funds without anyone from OSSE or the Office of the Chief Financial Officer knowing how much money should actually be in TAG accounts.
“Who’s running this operation?” Catania asked.
“It blows my mind,” Grosso said. “This is really a head-scratcher.”
TAG did not end up using much of the $9 million last year, and $7.9 million of it was rolled over to this year. That money will go toward filling the gap between this year’s congressional appropriation of $30 million and TAG’s estimated budget of about $33.7 million, officials said.
Catania is pushing for a locally funded scholarship program called D.C. Promise, which D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) has warned could discourage Congress from continuing to fund TAG.
Catania said Monday that the city cannot rely on TAG’s federal appropriations alone to meet the need for college aid.
Aguirre agreed. “There is a point in time in the next year or two that we will be short on funding,” he said. “As you stated, essentially the federal allocation hasn’t kept up with the cost of tuition.”
Catania said he expects OSSE to submit a final audit and an agreed-upon carry-over figure before its budget hearing in the spring.