State and federal probes dig deeper into Upshur County Schools’ finances; new superintendent calls initial findings ‘the tip of the iceberg’

CHARLESTON, W.Va. – One month after the West Virginia Department of Education seized control of Upshur County Schools, at least four investigations are continuing to look into financial and other concerns, according to an update provided to the state Board of Education on Wednesday morning.  

Among the new items under scrutiny are the county nutrition program and more than a million dollars in overtime expenses.

Jeff Kelley, the state Officer of Educational Accountability, told board members that in addition to the WVDE investigation, he has been in contact with the Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of West Virginia, the West Virginia State Police and the Office of the Inspector General with the U.S. Department of Education.

“We received a subpoena from the Assistant United States Attorney for the Northern District, Jarod Douglas, requesting records for Upshur County,” Kelley said. “I believe the due date for that is August 15.”

More than 1,000 documents have already been provided to federal investigators, he added.

“We’ve also been in contact with a representative from the West Virginia State Police, as well as the U.S. Department of Education Office of the Inspector General,” Kelley said. “Also, our Office of Child Nutrition has begun an inspection of nutrition in Upshur County.”

Christy Miller, who was appointed Superintendent of Upshur County Schools by the state board, said the initial findings that led to the takeover were “just the tip of the iceberg.”

“We are still discovering a lot about finances in the county, related not just to personnel but to expenditures,” Miller told the board. “We’re finding almost $1.2 million in overtime … so that’s something that we’ve started looking into and trying to make sense of.”

The new superintendent is trying to balance the various investigations while stabilizing the system.

“We’re looking at our schools at each programmatic level,” she said. “We are not achieving at levels that are acceptable by any means, and we need to ensure that that becomes the number one focus while we’re dealing with finances and policy – which is a mess, looking at federal programs and making sure that those expenditures are appropriate, leadership, organization …  I mean, it just runs the gamut. This was just the tip of the iceberg.”

Miller is on a two-year contract, the board said.

Kelley explained the frantic moments after the West Virginia Board of Education voted to take over Upshur County Schools during their June 14 meeting. By the end of that meeting, State Police had already been dispatched to secure the local board office on East Victoria Street.

“Superintendent [Michele] Blatt and myself and Mr. Pauley jumped in a car, I believe the night of the last board meeting, and made our way to Upshur County,” Kelley said. “I think we got up there about 10 p.m., give-or-take, and we were at the board office the following morning at 7:45 a.m. Among other things that morning, we met with the overseer of security for the county, a gentleman by the name Matt Sisk, and we met with Mr. [Stephen] Wotring to bring him up to speed.”

Wotring, who served as the interim superintendent from June 15-30, said his first priority was to the people of Upshur County and those working in the school system.

“There were problems there, but there were also people there,” Wotring told the board. “I felt my initial role was to try to calm the people. There were lots of tears, lots of anxiety, lots of fear, lots of people wondering if they still had a job, wondering what this meant going down the road.”

“I took the afternoon to meet with the staff to let them know that it’s a work in progress,” he added. “It’s really like a grieving process, when you think about it. There were lots of stories to tell, and they just needed to get a lot of things off their chests. [I reminded them] why do we do this in the first place, that we’re here for the kids, and we need to get refocused moving forward. What’s in the past is in the past; we’ve got a job to do moving forward.”

Wotring is now working two days a week as a liaison to Miller.

State Board of Education member Debra Sullivan said the people of Upshur County deserve an exemplary school system.

“Having visited Upshur County several times, I can’t help but be touched by the beauty of the people and the beauty of the place,” Sullivan said. “They deserve the best. Having been in some of the schools up there, and thinking about some of the educators up there, they are some of the finest in the state… So thank you for your good work in restoring the shine up there, because they certainly do deserve it.”

Miller, whose parents were both public educators, said she is up to the task.

“We can come out of this much stronger,” Miller told the board. “And I know that Upshur County can become that system that everyone can hold up and say, ‘Job well done.’ Let’s move forward.”

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