State: Bell City schools wrongly claimed funding

This abandoned rural Stoddard County home was listed falsely as a residence of students in the Bell City School District, according to the Scott County Central School District superintendent. (Don Frazier)

The Bell City School District illegally obtained state aid for at least nine students who don't live in the district, a state education agency found.

The Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education will demand the district -- which has approximately 300 students -- repay thousands of dollars in state aid received over the past two years, agency officials said Tuesday.

The superintendent of the neighboring Scott County Central School District said evidence shows Bell City school officials knew the students lived in the Scott County Central School District and provided false addresses for the students to obtain added state aid in violation of state law.

Bell City school officials insist they didn't break the law. Bell City superintendent Rhonda Niemczyk said the district wasn't aware of false addresses. But Tom Quinn, director of school governance for the state of Missouri, said the district was aware of possible residency problems at least two years ago.

He said the district didn't verify the students' addresses even after Scott County Central administrators again raised the issue with Bell City school officials last summer.

State education officials said the investigation dealt with claims that the Bell City School District knowingly counted nonresident students for state aid in violation of state law. Quinn said DESE is focused on recovering the funding it's owed rather than on how false addresses ended up on the books.

DESE staff is calculating just how much money the district must pay back, said agency spokesman Jim Morris.

Districts receive state aid ranging from $1,100 to about $5,000 per student. School districts can accept nonresident students, but they can't count them in the student enrollment numbers used to receive state funding, Quinn said.

Bell City's superintendent said the district will appeal once DESE releases its final report. That report is expected within the next few weeks. "I don't think we ought to have to pay back any money," Niemczyk said.

She said school officials didn't know the students lived outside the district and simply accepted the addresses given by parents.

Dr. Joby Holland, superintendent of the Scott County Central School District based near Morley, Mo., said the Bell City school staff knew the students didn't live in the Bell City district. Holland said those students lived in the heart of the 375-student Scott County Central School District, not even close to the boundary with the Bell City district.

He said a top official in the Bell City School District admitted to him last summer that the district had false addresses for the students in question.

DESE's investigator -- a retired school superintendent -- uncovered the students' true addresses after only two to three hours of investigation, Quinn said. The investigator found that several of the students were listed at an address which proved to be for a vacant, dilapidated house in rural Stoddard County.

Bell City's superintendent disputed the allegation. She said she's unaware of any such conversation with Holland. She also said she hasn't seen the house in question.

Holland said the vacant house mentioned in the investigation had no electric meter. "Three or four windows were knocked out. The mailbox is knocked down," he said.

Districts typically charge tuition for nonresident students. State funding for a school district is based solely on students who live within the boundaries of that district, state education officials said.

As part of the investigation, DESE hired an accounting firm to audit Bell City's financial books. The auditor showed up unannounced at the district office within the past two to three weeks, Quinn said.

The auditor found records showing that the students were counted for state aid, he said.

Holland said the nonresidents were mostly high school students but included some in elementary school.

DESE initially received complaints about the Bell City district two years ago, Quinn said. The issue resurfaced last summer when Scott County Central School District officials charged that nonresident students were attending Bell City School District without paying tuition and were being counted for state aid.

The two schools' campuses are located about 10 miles apart.

The Bell City School District has been illegally obtaining state aid dating back at least four years, Holland claims. Scott County Central officials believe the Bell City School District may have received state education dollars for as many as 18 to 20 nonresident students in a single school year.

Over the past four years that amounted to an estimated $200,000 to $300,000 in state aid, Holland said.

But Quinn said DESE's investigation only focused on the past two years.

Scott County Central officials initially didn't want to file a formal complaint, Holland said. But the state agency wouldn't proceed with a full investigation without a formal complaint from the Scott County Central school board.

The school board filed the complaint in February.

The Scott County Central school board took the action amid allegations raised by Bell City officials that Scott County Central boys basketball coach David Heeb had attempted to influence some Bell City players to transfer to the rival school.

Three of the four students who made that allegation against Heeb were among the students Bell City counted in illegally getting state aid, Holland said.

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