Academy ‘held hostage’ by school district fraud concerns

Officials debate the postponement of extra-curricular learning program while parents clamor for more answers

UCL-union high school-CUNION – Parents came out in force last week to demand an explanation for the very popular and growing Middle School and High School Academy being postponed just days before it was to begin.

And with the way things ended up at the meeting, it may not begin until spring.
Visibly upset at the meeting, Superintendent of Schools Patrick Martin explained that he sent out the letter postponing the program with 315 students enrolled this year because he did not want to see anyone charged with “double fraud.”

The academy, the brainchild of Martin, began three years ago. Parents and students embraced the before-and-after school 20-day program that went beyond the regular classroom learning experience. In fact, there even was a Saturday Academy, which was equally as popular.

At issue is whether the spike in academy enrollment had something to do with the fact the school district agreed last year to pay the $175 academy fee for any student qualifying for the federal free or reduced lunch program who wanted to attend the program. But it was not Martin who questioned the issue. It was Board President Ray Perkins.

At the meeting Martin admitted he was the last person who wanted to see the program postponed or canceled this year.
“It blows my mind that there are 312 kids in the school district that want to get up early to learn more for 20 days,” said an emotional Martin, but added “I’m not going to let any family get in trouble.”

The superintendent, while carefully measuring his words, explained that it was brought to his attention in an email that the district was getting more applications for the academy than expected. This “spike” raised eyebrows and subsequently put the academy program in jeopardy.

“The concern was whether they were all legitimate applications or were people saying ‘oh I can get into the academy if I say I qualify for the free lunch program,” Martin said.

“The problem is fraud, and fraud is a crime,” he said. “If any family who might not have understood they were not entitled to the free lunch program registered for the academy and for the district to pay the tuition, and then got in trouble, I would be very uncomfortable with anyone being labeled with a double fraud.”
“I love the academy, but I’m not going to let any family get in trouble,” Martin said multiple times, his voice filled with emotion and somewhat hesitant when discussing the issue.
The superintendent said he originally planned holding off on the academy for two weeks, but discovered a school audit of applications could take up to 30 days.
Nevertheless, Martin said that although his initial inclination was to postpone the program, he later discovered only 25 of the 312 applicants had enrolled in the free or reduced lunch program. This, he said, changed the urgency of the situation. Of the 25, Martin reported, 15 students signed up for free lunches and 10 for the reduced lunch plan.

“Even if all 25 were fraudulent, that is $3,500. It’s not the money because even if that number doubled and it was $7,000, we spend that on substitute teachers,” he added.

Seconds after Martin ended his report, Perkins admitted he sent the memo about the spike in academy students for a very good reason. He went on to explain that in the spring of 2011 the board was cited by the federal government for having children in the free and reduced lunch program that did not qualify.
“We went through an audit, and were fined $20,000,” the board president said, explaining to those present at the meeting “it is a crime to knowingly submit an application when someone is not entitled to the program.

“Our district is responsible for auditing the applications, and over the next 30 to 60 days that audit will continue,” Perkins said, adding, “we don’t want to see the U.S. government come back. Next time it won’t be $20,000. It will be much, much more.”

However, Board Member Vito Nufrio did not entirely agree with what he was hearing.
“I’m sitting here and I’m doubly confused. We did not process the free and reduced lunch applications, we hired a consultant to do that,” said the board member, pointing out any concern on Perkins part was a clear case of worrying about a few who may have put forth fraudulent information.

“It doesn’t justify the other 275 kids who really want be in the program not getting to start,” Nufrio said, adding he felt postponing the academy was “just spinning our wheels.”
The board member also brought up multiple times that if the board is not going to take the superintendent’s advice “what are we doing here.”
Martin interjected at this point, explaining he “wanted to be very, very careful here.”
“There was a clear message that there may be fraudulent activity,” the superintendent added.

“They may have already committed a fraud, but, again, I don’t understand pausing and 275 kids being held hostage,” Nufrio said.

Board Member David Arminio asked why students could not pay the $175 tuition fee and then later the board could reimburse all the students who were found to legitimately be in the federal lunch program. Perkins, however, refused to bend.

“You can’t sit idly by and watch a fraud take place,” the board president said, failing to explain why this particular issue did not come up last year when there was a spike in academy enrollment.

Perkins, an attorney, pointed out “when a federal agency is saying you are obligated to take a look at this, you have to look at it.”
Nufrio shot back that the board was spinning their wheels. Again.

“The applications are for free lunch, not the academy. It’s not the same thing,” the board member tried to explain to no avail, adding “aren’t we for the kids?”
Assistant Superintendent Gregory Tatum tried to explain that the problem the school district found itself in was the result of the system backfiring.
“Verifications of the lunch program applications can be done quickly if people bring the documentation to the school. But those that don’t could take 30 days to come in and that could delay things,” he said.

At this point Nufrio, as well as parents in the audience, began to lose patience.
“If they are innocent until proven guilty, the academy program can continue until their kids have to be removed from the program,” the board member said. Perkins responded saying he thought everyone was trying to practice law.

“I take offense to that – I’m not a lawyer like you,” Nufrio shot back, adding “maybe I should stay home because I’m hitting a brick wall.”
Board Member Linda Gaglione had plenty to say on the topic of the academy, but it was evident that while she once supported the program, she now had issues with it.

Specifically, the board member had a problem with taking money out of the budget to pay for students on the free lunch program to attend the academy.
“We have issues with operations. You can’t keep taking money out of the budget because people come up with an idea,” Gaglione said, referring directly to Martin who came up with the idea of the academy.

Nufrio, though, felt that the entire board had voted to pass the resolution regarding students who could not afford the academy.
“At this point we really need to get our facts straight. It’s becoming a joke. We do, we undo,” the board member said.
Susan Lipstein, President of the Township of Union Education Committee presented a solution to the problem, proposing that if $7,000 to $15,000 was needed, they would get it from the community.

“The academy should not be held hostage,” she told the board.
Parent Jeff Monge, whose son was looking forward to attending the academy, said he would put up the money for students, subsidizing those who could not pay. But Perkins said there were 118 on free or reduced lunch, which was 40 percent of the students registered for the program.

Although Martin said there was only an initial surge of 25 students interested in attending the academy, Perkins said “that’s not consistent with what I have.”
Monge interjected at this point, explaining that he grew up on the free lunch program.

“The idea that all the kids are guilty until a few are proven is wrong,” he said, adding “I don’t know what the hidden item is here, but my business, Monge Capital, will write a check and those not found guilty can pay me back,” the parent said, asking Perkins if they had a deal.
“Will you put that in writing, “ Perkins snapped back.

The question of how long an “audit” of applications would take place also surfaced, with Perkins changing his mind several times about how long the process actually would take.

Nufrio reminded Perkins that he voted for the board to pay for students who were in the free and reduced lunch program.
Martin again stressed that his concern from the start had everything to do with any parent being accused of a crime, and he was “ready to roll with the academy.” One resident even suggested that he knew the superintendent very well and he felt something was being hidden.

Resident and parent Valerie Taylor asked the board if it was their intention that “parents are powerless,” adding students must be recognized as a priority.
It was at this point that Perkins broached what could be the crux of the problem.

“We need to make sure these programs are available to all kids. Your kids will be okay,” he told parents at the meeting, adding “what about the kids that aren’t here?”
Gaglione felt all the students should benefit if money was being taken out of the budget for the academy. Nufrio grew impatient with where things were going and let the both Perkins and Gaglione know it.

“We’re picking over bones. We already had this discussion and we voted for the academy and now we are undoing things. How do we undo what we did?” the board member asked.
“We can’t get our act together so the kids suffer,” Nufrio added.

Perkins then admitted that his vote for the academy “had conditions,” but Nufrio snapped back that he didn’t vote with conditions.
Parent Suehay Monge approached the podium at this time, pointing out that it was “pretty obvious where certain board members’ votes will go.” But she warned the board that parents could see through what was going on.

“It’s an excuse, a delay tactic, but elections are coming up,” Monge said, referring to board members up for re-election Nov. 5.
Before the end of the meeting, Perkins would not be pinned down to how long the application audit would take; drawing the ire of one parent who shouted the board president was “a bully.”
Martin said that if the program could start within two weeks, it would not be delayed until the spring, but Perkins said it was the superintendent who postponed the academy, not him.

Parents began shouting from the audience at this point, and Perkins yelled back “Dr. Martin had the approval.”
The superintendent said he would do anything to get the academy running.
“But I’m learning I just can’t say let’s start Monday,” Martin told residents.