Starr to Update Board on Rock Terrace Work Programs
Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) Superintendent Joshua P. Starr will provide the Montgomery County Board of Education with an update on work experience programs at Rock Terrace School, including a plan to address withdrawal of funds that some students received as part of their educational program.
The update will take place during the Jan. 14 Board of Education meeting. The Board had requested an update from the superintendent after an MCPS investigation discovered poor oversight and management of the funds that were provided to students. The Board also asked that Dr. Starr and his staff develop a plan for addressing concerns about money that was withdrawn from student credit union accounts by staff without adequate documentation regarding use of the funds or an explanation to parents.
Rock Terrace, which serves students, ages 11-21, with a range of significant cognitive and physical disabilities, has programs that allow students to gain work experience and life skills they will need after graduation. As part of these programs, some students were provided small amounts of money so they could gain real-life experience in handling wages and using banks. These funds either came from the Independent Activity Fund (IAF) at the school or directly from the MCPS Operating Budget. In many cases, staff assisted students in opening bank accounts with the Montgomery County Teachers Federal Credit Union, now known as the Educational Systems Federal Credit Union.
In May 2013, MCPS began an investigation into the handling of the money provided to students at Rock Terrace as a result of concerns about how the money was used. The investigation found that funds were withdrawn from student bank accounts and seemed to have been used for the educational program at the school. However, there was insufficient documentation to verify how the funds were used. While the MCPS investigation found no evidence of any intent to defraud students or use the funds for non-program purposes, it did find that the program was poorly managed and that many important records—such as bank statements—were missing.
As a result of the findings, MCPS stopped providing money to students at Rock Terrace and at other work-related programs in high schools while policies and practices were reviewed. MCPS also asked the Montgomery County State’s Attorney Office to use its power to subpoena bank records for Rock Terrace students to determine—if possible—how much money may have been withdrawn.
As part of his update to the Board, Dr. Starr will provide an overview of the work experience programs and how the funds were provided to students as part of the educational program. He also will discuss two action steps that will be taken in the coming months.
First, Dr. Starr will recommend that MCPS continue to not provide money to students as part of the educational program at Rock Terrace and other high school special education programs for the remainder of this school year, at least. He is asking that a work group of staff and parents be assembled to determine the educational benefit of providing funds to students and, if the funds are provided, how the program should be structured to ensure proper oversight and to make sure there are not unintended consequences for students who receive federal benefits.
“I believe there well may be educational merit to helping students with severe disabilities, who possess the ability to become employable after graduation, make the connection between work and pay,” Dr. Starr wrote in a memo to the Board. “I am not convinced that it is necessary to use money to make that connection.”
Dr. Starr also is presenting a plan to address the funds that may have been withdrawn due to poor management and execution of the program at Rock Terrace. Students who participated in a districtwide, off-campus work program received money funded from the MCPS budget and, therefore, the district is able to track how much money they received since 2006. As part of Dr. Starr’s plan, the Rock Terrace students who participated in this program and had funds deposited in their credit union account will receive a payment equal to the amount of money they received during their participation in this program. Thirty-one students will receive these payments.
Due to a lack of accurate recordkeeping, there are some students for whom the amount of money received from participation in on-campus work experience programs and later withdrawn from credit union accounts cannot be determined. These are students who received money for participating in work experience programs inside Rock Terrace, including culinary arts, office skills and practices, and home skills/woodworking.
While the State’s Attorney is working to access credit union records, Dr. Starr said it is unclear if MCPS will ever be able to determine accurate amounts and felt it is important for the school system to address the issue as quickly as possible and begin reestablishing trust between MCPS and parents. Dr. Starr is presenting a plan that will provide these students a flat payment of $200 from MCPS, which is more than many students received and less than other students received. At least 75 students will receive these payments.
Parents will be notified of Dr. Starr’s plan and will have the opportunity to seek review of the money they are receiving based on additional information they may have.