- Associated Press - Saturday, August 13, 2016

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - Mississippi after-school programs that had been expecting federal subsidies to serve 29,000 students aren’t getting any money for now, after state Department of Education officials mishandled grant money and tried to cover up their mistakes. Some programs that had received funding for years could lose it as the state tries to figure out how to repay up to $19 million in federal money.

Department spokeswoman Jean Cook said Friday three employees had been fired, but declined to name them or their positions, saying the department isn’t required to discuss personnel issues under state law.

State Superintendent Carey Wright informed the state board of education during a special meeting Thursday of the deficit in the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program. She ordered all program providers to spend no money until further notice.

The state gets $14 million in the federal budget year ending Sept. 30 to pay for after-school enrichment.

Wright told board members that employees in the department’s Office of Federal Programs was notified in April that it was allowing programs to overspend their budgets by $2 million. But instead of making cuts, the office began dipping into a federal Title I aid for poor children to cover the shortfalls, breaking federal rules in the process. By July, when federal programs officials told higher-ups, it had improperly spent $11.6 million. Wright said potentially the department will have to make up another $7.5 million that was committed for August.

“It’s not an allowable expense for Title I, and that was in direct violation of all the federal program requirements,” she told WJTV-TV (https://bit.ly/2b4hAgF).

At the same time, officials made the mistake of approving 46 new programs for the school year now starting without setting any money aside to keep funding the 65 existing programs. Overall, the department committed to fund programs serving students in 67 school districts and at two charter schools during the 2016-2017 year. Some programs are provided by school districts, while others are provided by outside entities.

“These folks that made these decisions were experienced people so it comes at quite a blow,” Wright said. “I need you to know that. The last thing that I would ever want is to impact negatively any child in the state.”

Wright said the state is likely to zero out grants for some programs that got money in previous years and cut funding for others. She said the department will try to preserve funding for programs serving students with low academic achievement, but will seek to evaluate whether after-school programs are helping academic achievement.

The superintendent said federal officials have yet to tell Mississippi how to fix the mistake.

“We’re having to work with the United States Department of Education to determine what our options are and in doing so we are told it’s going to take a little bit of time,” she said.

Wright said new state accounting software has hampered the department’s ability to monitor and manage federal money. She said the department is updating software to better manage grants, will expand financial oversight, and will audit spending from all federal money the department receives.

It’s the second accounting misstep that Wright has brought to the board in recent months. In May, the board voted to reduce the salary of the department’s chief information officer, John Porter, after state Auditor Stacey Pickering flagged the salary as improper. Porter was making $195,000, but most state employees aren’t allowed to be paid more than 1.5 times the governor’s salary. The board voted to cut Porter’s salary to $183,000 a year and require him to repay excess salary and benefits at the rate of $1,000 a month.

Gov. Phil Bryant cited the Porter problem when he vetoed a bill that would have exempted the department from civil service rules, making it harder for Wright to reorganize personnel.

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Online: List of federally-funded after-school programs: https://bit.ly/2b4fJZm

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Associated Press writer Emily Wagster Pettus contributed to this report.

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Follow Jeff Amy at: https://twitter.com/jeffamy . Read his work at https://bigstory.ap.org/author/jeff-amy .

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