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Stoddard County prosecutor to look at Bell City school issue

Wednesday, August 9, 2006

The Stoddard County prosecutor will review a state investigative report regarding the Bell City School District's actions that led to illegally obtaining state aid.

Stoddard County prosecutor Briney Welborn said Tuesday that ultimately he may forward the matter to the Missouri attorney general's office.

Welborn agreed to look at the issue at the request of former Bell City school board member Curtis Finney who contends school officials are guilty of "gross public mistrust and illegal activities."

School officials denied Finney's accusation earlier this summer. Superintendent Rhonda Niemczyk was out of the office Tuesday and couldn't be reached for comment.

Finney said Welborn has three options. "He said he would look at the evidence," said Finney. "He said he would prosecute, not prosecute or forward to the attorney general."

Finney believes school officials should be prosecuted. "I think they should pay for their wrongdoing." he said.

In June, Finney said he would circulate a petition seeking to have a circuit judge remove six of the seven current school board members.

School board president Larry Gene Strobel said earlier this summer that he won't resign and doesn't expect other members to resign either.

After meeting with the prosecutor, Finney dropped plans to circulate a petition.

"The prosecuting attorney told me that if a law had been broken that it was not necessary for individuals to seek a petition asking him to do his job," Finney said.

Finney contends that Bell City school officials committed fraud when they illegally counted 10 students in the enrollment numbers used to obtain state aid.

School officials have denied it. The Bell City superintendent said in May that school officials didn't know the students lived outside the district.

"I don't think we ought to have to pay back any money," Niemczyk said at the time.

But the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education investigation found that the 10 students were residents of a neighboring school district. In a rare move, the state board of dducation voted this summer to deduct $13,000 from the scheduled June payment to the district to reimburse the state for the money it was owed.

DESE staff, at Finney's urging, recently sent a copy of the investigative report to the prosecutor. DESE later also provided Welborn with a copy of a controversial rental contract for a house that was listed as the address of some of the students in question.

DESE's investigator -- a retired school superintendent -- found that the address proved to be a vacant, dilapidated house in rural Stoddard County.

DESE's investigation, state education officials said, stopped short of determining how false addresses for the students ended up on the school district's rolls.

mbliss@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 123


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