Bell City schools illegally obtained $19,000

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

The Bell City School District illegally secured more than $19,000 in state aid this school year, state education officials said Monday.

The small school district in Stoddard County enrolled 10 students who reside in a neighboring school district, an investigation by the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education found. The Bell City district unlawfully obtained state aid by reporting those students as residents of their district, state officials said.

State education officials plan to withhold the money from Bell City's state aid, possibly as early as June.

But the State Board of Education first would have to approve the penalty. Bell City school officials then could file an appeal in Cole County Circuit Court.

Commissioner of education D. Kent King notified Bell City superintendent Rhonda Niemczyk of the agency's findings in a May 12 letter and vowed that his department would continue to monitor the situation.

Bell City superintendent Rhonda Niemczyk said the district likely will appeal DESE's ruling. The district has until May 31 to file an appeal with DESE.

Both DESE officials and Niemczyk said they want a quick resolution to the case.

The investigation was prompted by a written complaint in February from the neighboring Scott County Central School District board of education, based at Morley, Mo.

Scott County Central superintendent Dr. Joby Holland said the evidence shows Bell City school officials knew the students didn't live in the Bell City district and falsified addresses to illegally obtain state funding.

"Records were falsified and DESE's aware of that," Holland said.

He said the students and their families aren't to blame. "The families have never tried to hide where they live," he said.

He said the Bell City superintendent told him last August that she was aware that some of the students in question lived in the Scott County Central district.

Niemczyk has denied it.

State education officials have stopped short of saying that Bell City officials deliberately falsified records and intentionally inflated enrollment to get added state aid.

"This is beyond our scope," said DESE spokesman Jim Morris.

Tom Quinn, director of school governance for the state, said the investigation didn't focus on whether Bell City officials knew the students in question were non-residents when they counted them for state aid.

"Maybe you can see a smoking gun, but it is not in black and white," said Quinn.

The state education department also has limited regulatory power, he said. The agency can't assess fines for violations.

It's unusual for DESE to conduct such an investigation. "It is basically almost unprecedented to go into a school district like this," Quinn said.

Typically, residency issues are resolved by local superintendents in the affected districts without involving the state education agency, he said.

DESE's investigation focused on the 2005-2006 school year. But Holland said Scott County Central officials believe Bell City illegally obtained state aid by counting as many as 20 nonresident students as resident students over the past five years.

That could have generated the Bell City district more than $100,000 in state aid it shouldn't have received, Holland said.

But he said the real issue isn't the amount of money involved. "Whether you steal a dollar from someone or $100,000, you still stole," said Holland

DESE's investigation showed that Bell City wrongly listed as resident students: a kindergartner, a second grader, an eighth grader, three ninth graders, two tenth graders, an 11th grader and one high school senior.

As part of the investigation, the state agency hired an accounting firm to review Bell City's student enrollment records related to state aid.

DESE also enlisted the help of a retired school superintendent to investigate the matter. He uncovered the students' true addresses after only a few hours of investigation, Quinn said.

The investigator found that the Bell City district listed several of the students as living at an address which proved to be a vacant, dilapidated house in rural Stoddard County.

"From the extent of deterioration, broken windows and the fact the electric meter had been pulled, it was obvious no one had lived in the house anytime recently, retired superintendent David Decker of Lincoln, Mo., wrote in his report.

Bell City school officials previously had showed DESE a copy of a 2004 lease agreement suggesting that several of the students lived at that address.

But Decker's report indicates the house may have been vacant for the past four or five years.

His report includes affidavits from Holland, basketball coach David Heeb and three others employed by the Scott County Central School District.

They all reported living near the students in question.

But Niemczyk said she hopes to prove that some of these students don't reside in the Scott County Central School District.

She said she's working to identify the true residences of these students. "I am not finished yet," she said.

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