- Associated Press - Friday, November 13, 2015

PIERRE, S.D. (AP) - South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard said Friday that the state Department of Education and its top official appropriately handled the termination of a federal college-readiness grant thrust into the spotlight because of a murder-suicide involving two employees of the Platte-based educational cooperative that administered it.

Daugaard first learned of problems with Mid-Central Educational Cooperative’s management of the GEAR UP college-readiness grant in late August or early September, he told The Associated Press, saying the education agency offered the cooperative technical support for years and likely provided more oversight of the GEAR UP grant than others administered through the department.

Hours after the department informed Mid-Central that it was losing its GEAR UP contract on Sept. 16, cooperative business manager Scott Westerhuis fatally shot his wife, Nicole, and four children before setting the family home ablaze and shooting himself. Nicole Westerhuis was the co-op’s assistant business manager.

A state-federal investigation into the financial circumstances involving GEAR UP is ongoing, and Attorney General Marty Jackley has said financial issues appear to have been a contributing factor in the deaths. Few details about the inquiry have been made public.

Department of Education Secretary Melody Schopp has said the department worked with Mid-Central for several years to address financial concerns before it decided not to renew the contract. The department didn’t find criminal concerns, but Schopp cited lack of fiscal controls, conflicts of interest and failure to follow proper accounting procedures in declining to renew the contract.

The GEAR UP grant has been focused on Native American students in South Dakota.

State Republican Rep. Lance Russell recently called for Schopp to resign over the state’s oversight of the grant program. But Daugaard credited Schopp for cancelling the contract and said she has his full support.

The governor also pushed back against some Democrats’ calls to establish a state ethics panel in the wake of the deaths. He said the issues that have surfaced are outside of his administration and that the Legislature recently strengthened state conflict-of-interest policy.

“I’ve seen those ethics boards in other states become more an arena for political combat, and (they) don’t really serve to prevent or dissuade unethical behavior,” Daugaard said. “I think we have good policies in place, and we have good employees.”

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