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Massachusetts school districts opened their doors four years ago to more than 6,000 students from Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands who were fleeing from the devastation caused by hurricanes Maria and Irma. Along the way, the districts collectively picked up millions of dollars in extra federal aid that was supposed to be used for their schooling.
But now a recently completed federal audit is raising questions about misspending and is blaming the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, which administered the federal program locally, for basically shuffling along paperwork and money.
Specifically, the audit faulted the agency for refusing to conduct its own review of expenditures, giving districts poor guidance on using the money, and neglecting to vet information in districts’ aid applications.
The resulting violations are so severe that Springfield and Worcester might have to return more than $2 million combined if they can’t account for the money. Among the missteps the audit identified: obtaining aid for students who allegedly were not displaced by the hurricanes, spending the money on employees at schools with no hurricane victims, and failing to document expenditures for displaced students with disabilities, who garner higher per-student allocations of federal aid.
In auditing the state education department’s management of the federal aid program, the US Department of Education’s Inspector General’s Office focused on those two districts because they received the most displaced students and aid, providing a good potential snapshot of statewide trends. Consequently, the US Education Department has ordered the state to review spending in the other 67 districts that received students, which includes Boston, and to return any money that doesn’t comply with federal requirements.
“Massachusetts did not ensure displaced student count data reported to the [US Education] Department were accurate and complete because it did not have adequate controls in place to prevent or detect inaccurate displaced student counts,” the audit said, noting the state took districts at their word when local officials attested the data were accurate.
The audit also took aim at the state education department for abandoning efforts to scrutinize expenditures after more than two years of delays, writing: “In August 2021, we were notified that Massachusetts decided not to monitor the Emergency Impact Aid program.”
In all, Massachusetts received $15.5 million in emergency impact aid — the fifth largest amount among states nationwide — to educate 6,764 students who relocated here after the devastating hurricanes in 2017 and, to a smaller degree, other natural disasters elsewhere that year, including brutal California wildfires.
About a third of the funding went to Springfield and Worcester. Springfield received $3.2 million for 1,373 displaced students and Worcester got $2.1 million for 911 students.
The breakdown in oversight at the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education comes as it’s dispersing a much larger pool of federal aid, $2.6 billion, to help districts recover from the pandemic. And local education advocates have already begun to question how districts are spending that money.
A state education spokeswoman defended the agency’s oversight of the hurricane aid.
“After this funding was distributed, DESE monitored its allocation and provided the districts with technical assistance to support federal guidance governing its expenditure, and is confident that all educational needs of displaced students were met,” Colleen Quinn, the spokeswoman, said in a statement. “The Department will continue to work collaboratively with school districts and the US Department of Education to resolve any outstanding issues and ensure continued compliance.”
At this point, she added, Springfield and Worcester are not required to return any money.
In the audit, the state would not say whether it agreed or disagreed with the findings and made no commitments to examine the financial records of the other districts. Instead, the state said it would work with Springfield and Worcester to resolve the issues and establish alternative procedures for reporting accurate counts of displaced students in the future.
The state also explained that the federal grant requirements were not conducive to its established systems of control in verifying data and that it experienced difficulty reopening closed financial records associated with the spending that is under the control of the state Department of Revenue.
The auditors, dissatisfied with the state agency’s response, refused to back down on their request for a comprehensive review of all districts, noting the state was supposed to have begun that scrutiny three years ago.
Worcester schools Superintendent Maureen Binienda said she was unaware of the final audit findings until the Globe contacted her last week. She said the district worked with the state in July to address concerns raised in an initial draft of the audit, which included providing documentation for all but four of the 49 students flagged as ineligible for the aid.
The final audit still contends those 49 students don’t qualify. Binienda said she was never told the documentation had been rejected.
“We followed state guidance on how to distribute the funds and how to keep track of it,” Binienda said in an interview. “We didn’t misuse funds in Worcester. We are very careful.”
Springfield officials say they were in close contact with the state’s education department throughout the reporting process.
“The district fully committed to accepting the more than 1,300 displaced students in a way that required unprecedented and unforeseen finances, processes, and protocols,” Superintendent Daniel Warwick said in a written statement. “Admittedly, these were unchartered territories for the state and for the districts. We stand proud of our efforts.”
Massachusetts is at least the third state the US Education Department has faulted for misclassifying students and misspending aid intended for victims of natural disasters. A 2020 audit on Texas spending recommended the state education department return more than $12 million if it couldn’t back expenditures. Similarly a 2021 audit on Florida called for returning more than $7 million.
Under the program, districts received between $2,125 and $2,500 per student, depending on whether the student had a special learning need.
But fully accounting for all families can be tricky. Families came to Massachusetts throughout the 2017-18 school year, and many shifted from one temporary living arrangement to another, frequently in different school districts. Local school officials also experienced difficulties obtaining academic records for students because their schools were closed or destroyed by the hurricanes.
But even when families could provide records documenting their children’s academic and medical needs, some families said it was difficult getting adequate services.
Take Zuleyka, for example, whose children attended three different school systems within a year. Zuleyka, who asked to be identified by her first name only, arrived in Massachusetts with her husband and two young children almost two months after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico on Sept. 20, 2017. The 155 mile-an-hour winds and flooding had knocked out power, water, and cellular phone service to most of the island. It wasn’t clear when those services would resume or schools would reopen, and the US territory is still struggling to recover.
The family initially moved in with relatives in Springfield and immediately sought to register their children for school. The school system enrolled her 8-year-old son in third grade, but wouldn’t register her 5-year-old daughter, who has severe developmental and medical disabilities.
“They told me they couldn’t serve her,” Zuleyka said in Spanish in a recent interview.
Two weeks later, the family moved to a Quality Inn in neighboring West Springfield, paid for by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, forcing her son to change schools. West Springfield Public Schools were also willing to enroll her daughter. Her son briefly received speech therapy, psychological counseling and other services he got in Puerto Rico, said Zuleyka, who wasn’t sure why they stopped.
After six months in a hotel, the family found affordable housing in Holyoke. And the children changed schools again.
According to the audit, the most egregious violations in Springfield and Worcester involved their handling of $1.4 million aid for displaced students with disabilities, which they may have to return.
“Neither had any documentation supporting that Emergency Impact Aid funds were tracked separately and used for special education and related services consistent with Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requirements,” the audit found.