- Associated Press - Tuesday, October 6, 2015

FLANDREAU, S.D. (AP) - South Dakota is waiting for word from the U.S. Department of Education about the future of a Native American college-readiness program that’s under scrutiny in part due to an investigation into an apparent murder-suicide, state Education Secretary Melody Schopp said Tuesday.

Schopp told an advisory panel on Native American student achievement that the state has asked its federal counterpart about transitioning the GEAR UP program to a new administrator.

The state had contracted with Platte-based Mid-Central Educational Cooperative to administer the program in South Dakota, which received $10.7 million in federal GEAR UP funds over the last four years. Hours after the education department informed Mid-Central that it was losing its contract last month, employee Scott Westerhuis apparently shot his wife and four children and then set the family home near Platte ablaze before shooting himself.

Schopp told the advisory council that the status of funding for this year’s school year is unclear.

“We are waiting to hear from the U.S. Department of Education about the future of the grant itself in South Dakota, and that’s the best answer I can give you at this point in time,” she said of the program’s future. A U.S. Department of Education spokesman didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Schopp was reluctant to speak at length about the program. The state Division of Criminal Investigation is looking into Westerhuis’ personal finances and his management of the cooperative, where he served as business manager, as authorities search for a motive in the deaths.

Mid-Central was notified Sept. 16 that it had lost the GEAR UP contract, and Schopp cited financial problems and failures to follow proper accounting procedures as reasons in a follow-up letter sent five days later.

State officials began seeking other partnership options for the grant when “fiscal accountability and management by (the cooperative) continued to be a concern,” Gov. Dennis Daugaard said in a letter last week to the chairman of a legislative oversight committee.

Officials have discussed with the Board of Regents potentially turning over administration of the grant to Black Hills State University and the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology.

Some schools have signed contracts based on GEAR UP funding, according to Sherry Johnson, education director for the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate.

“These are adult faults. These are adult problems, and the kids and their programs should not be penalized,” Johnson said. “That was for them, it was doing what it should do.”

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