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Jeff Kelley, the West Virginia Department of Education's Officer of Accountability, answers questions from audience members at Tuesday's Upshur County Board of Education meeting. / (Photos by Katie Kuba)

County superintendent: Checks to pay back misspent funds were written out of Upshur Schools’ general fund

TENNERTON – Some of the more than $816,000 in misused funds that Upshur County Schools was forced to pay back following an ongoing West Virginia Department of Education investigation came from local – i.e., county – funds.

During a heated and often boisterous meeting that stretched for more than two hours Tuesday at Buckhannon-Upshur High School, Upshur County Schools Superintendent Christy Miller told residents that some of the $816,754.13 in misused funds that have already been paid back to the state Department of Education – parts of which went to the U.S. Treasury and other entities – came from Upshur County Schools’ general fund.

Miller answered the question after several frustrated people in the crowd of more than 100 attendees demanded to know from what accounts the returned money was remitted. Most of the county board of education’s power was taken away when the state intervened on June 14.  

The main purpose of the Dec. 19 meeting was for Jeff Kelley, the WVDE’s Accountability Officer, to provide an in-person overview of the Upshur County Schools Special Circumstance Review Update – first delivered at the state Board of Education’s monthly meeting on Dec. 13 – to the county board of education and residents. Miller had also asked the WVDE to outline its plan for the future.

During his report, Kelley told the audience that the more-than-$816,000 had been paid back, but a number of residents had questions about which pool of funds it had been pulled from.

“I have a question that I think everybody here wants the answer to,” one woman said. “You mentioned that the money had been paid back. So, at this point, can we know where that money came from, whether it’s going to be reimbursed later or put back, or how that’s going to work?”

When Kelley said he “didn’t have any information immediately available,” a number of people in the crowd insisted that Central Office administrators should know.

“We want some answers! We came here to get answers!” one man yelled. “This happens every board meeting, and we’re tired of this, and then you turn around and want another levy – you want more money from the taxpayers when you misused what you had.”

One of many frustrated county residents demands answers from the WVDE.

Several board members, including Board Vice President Jan Craig, board member Roy Wager and board member Sherry Dean, reiterated that they had not been on the board when many of the violations had occurred. Only the board president, Dr. Tammy Samples, was on the board during the time in question.

A third audience member expressed anger about a widespread “lack of transparency,” saying he was frustrated board of education meetings were not regularly televised.

“Trying to hide what’s going on is what gets you where you’re at,” he said, drawing audience applause.

A fourth person reiterated the question.

“It’s not a hard question,” the speaker said. “We just want somebody to speak to what account the [$816,000] came out of.”

Miller then intervened, saying two different processes had been involved in repaying the money – account transfers and checks written from the county’s general fund.

“There were checks that had to be written, and then there were transfers of funds that had to take place from those particular accounts (focus/problem areas) – child nutrition and/or the federal program accounts,” she said. “The checks that were written came out of the general fund – that’s where they came from.”

Upshur County Schools Superintendent Christy Miller answers a question; also pictured is county assistant superintendent Russ Collett.

Earlier in the meeting, Kelley had briefed the county board and audience on the report and reviewed the events that led to the state takeover. He said the WVDE Office of Federal Programs conducted routine monitoring in December 2022, after which questions arose about whether a variety of district expenditures were valid uses of federal funding.

In May 2023, then-West Virginia Superintendent of Schools David Roach directed the Office of Accountability to conduct a Special Circumstance Review of the district.

A preliminary review delivered to the state board of education on June 14, 2023, prompted it to intervene in the operation of Upshur County Schools, with an immediate takeover “due to the severity of the findings,” Kelley said.

As described in a previous article, the report focuses on six problem areas: federal programs, child nutrition, local policies and procedures, personnel and payroll, compliance with the state department’s finance policy and the excess levy call.

Kelley said it’s important for residents to understand that specialists in each of the six identified focus areas were consulted and contributed to the latest 20-page update.

“I am not a nutrition specialist, so I want you to understand that,” he said. “I will engage those [department specialists] upon my return again to try to answer all of your questions.”

Under the first focus area, federal funds and programs, Kelley said there are certain items and purposes that school districts can’t use federal monies to cover.

“That required a check to be remitted in the amount of $221,394.12 to be made payable to the West Virginia Department of Education,” Kelley said. “Those funds are being returned to the U.S. Treasury because the grant awards they are associated with have expired.”

Kelley said $122,485 in misspent funds from federal grant awards that had not yet expired had to be transferred into a non-federal funds account. In addition, the WVDE is requiring the district to repay more than $80,000 “for erroneous meal counts relative to at-risk [student] snack and supper programs” in April and May of 2020.

“Due to meal counts not being able to be validated, the department expects Upshur County to repay another $348,340 for undocumented meal counts,” Kelley said.

One section of the report notes that, “Preliminary reports indicate that iPads and MacBooks were acquired using federal funds designated for child nutrition,” adding that the information has been confirmed by the WVDE.

He said the money would be returned to the WVDE and the W.Va. Department of Agriculture.

The updated report also says the school district needs to consult legal counsel to develop or update a number of policies regarding the use of P-cards/credit cards, travel, purchasing/procurement of services, conflicts of interest, and salary/compensation.

Investigation into another focus area – personnel and payroll – revealed the following findings:

Compensation was provided to employees without board approval, and the school system paid employees for out-of-calendar days with no evidence of board approval. State policy defines out-of-calendar days as “nonpaid days not included as part of the minimum employment term.”

The report also flagged several payments to then-superintendent Dr. Sara Stankus, including $3,100 in attendance incentive bonuses; $17,379 for 42 vacation days when state policy says the superintendent should only be paid for unused vacation days ‘not to exceed 10 days’ at her or his current rate of pay; and $13,410 for out-of-calendar days in 2022 at a daily rate of about $670 – significantly above her approved daily rate of pay which hovered between $413 and $430.

Another focus area examined how excess levy funds were spent, Kelley said.

“[The county needs] procedures to ensure excess levy funds are spent in accordance with what they’re supposed to be spent on,” he said. “Those are the big-ticket items.”

West Virginia Superintendent of Schools Michele Blatt, who also attended Tuesday’s meeting, explained why the takeover of Upshur County Schools had looked different than other WVDE school district interventions.

West Virginia Superintendent of Schools Michele Blatt

“There was not time to put a final report together and have a plan in place for you before action was taken to get Superintendent Miller into her position,” Blatt told the audience. “We knew that needed to take place immediately, and there were other entities that were going to be involved as we moved forward with this investigation.”

“I can assure you that everything we are doing at the Department of Education is to make sure that there are effective policies in place, that teachers have what they need, but most importantly, that students get everything they need to be successful,” she added.

Addressing the multiple questions asked during the meeting, Blatt said the WVDE would answer what it could.

“I will say that you will probably not get all of your questions answered because there is information that we cannot share at this time because of other investigations that are pending,” she said.

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