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Starr proposes paying back Montgomery special education students

The Montgomery County schools chief has proposed making payments to more than 100 special education students whose work-study money was withdrawn from school-arranged bank accounts in recent years.

Superintendent Joshua P. Starr’s proposal comes as the Montgomery state’s attorney’s office investigates complaints alleging financial improprieties at Rock Terrace, a public school in Rockville for special education students.

Rock Terrace parents contend that they did not know that the student accounts existed and did not see deposits or withdrawals that school officials oversaw.

Starr’s recommendation, expected to cost between $30,000 and $35,000, is an effort to rebuild trust and resolve concerns equitably, school officials said. It is scheduled for discussion at Tuesday’s county Board of Education meeting, with documents to be posted on the board’s Web site Friday.

Starr “felt once we had the best information we could get, some type of payment to the families should be made,” said Larry A. Bowers, the school system’s chief operating officer. “He thinks it’s a fair and reasonable and appropriate action to take.”

A school system investigation found poor financial management, but not fraud, at Rock Terrace. ­Record-keeping was lax, officials said, and student funds were inappropriately used for school programs. The school’s principal was placed on leave and retired.

According to documents, a grand jury was scheduled to review bank records related to complaints in December. That month, school board members asked Starr to recommend a way to address the withdrawals from student accounts. They also asked for a report on improving financial management and other issues.

At Tuesday’s board meeting, Starr plans to make a detailed presentation about his proposal, officials said.

The school board’s vice president, Patricia O’Neill (Bethesda-Chevy Chase), said she would probably support Starr’s proposal. “It seems fair,” she said. “I think it speaks to people’s concerns to do the best by the kids as soon as we can.”

Lyda Astrove, a lawyer who has been a vocal advocate for Rock Terrace families, has called on the district to hire an independent auditor to determine how much money families are owed. Officials said about 110 students were affected.

Under Starr’s plan, more than 30 students would be paid according to information on federal W-2 forms that reflect their participation in an off-campus work­experience program. The W-2 forms show amounts ranging from $10.95 to $627.80, according to a memo from Starr to the board.

About 75 students would get a flat $200. They were paid directly by the school for participating in an on-campus work-experience program that did not generate Internal Revenue Service forms.

“The $200 amount is more than some of the students received and less than others received, but I believe it is important to make a good faith effort to acknowledge the deficiencies in the way these programs were run and to rebuild the trust of this community,” Starr’s memo says.

Students did not earn standard hourly wages in either Rock Terrace program; the money was intended to teach students about the link between work skills and pay, officials said.

All of the students had accounts at Montgomery County Teachers Federal Credit Union, which has become part of the Educational Systems Federal Credit Union.

Officials said parents who disagree with the amount assigned to their child’s case may ask for a review. Checks would be issued in the next two months.

Starr wrote that he considered several options, including delaying the matter until grand jury proceedings are complete or asking parents to obtain bank records. The option he settled on was one he hopes “will go a long way in restoring the parents’/guardians’ faith in the school system’s financial practices.”

Donna St. George writes about education, with an emphasis on Montgomery County schools.



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