BUCKHANNON – Upshur County Schools must pay back tens of thousands of dollars in grant funds after a review found multiple instances of non-compliance with the policies governing COVID-related funding, according to a monitoring document prepared by the West Virginia Department of Education.
The WVDE has also initiated a “Special Circumstance Review” related to the federal programs monitoring, according to a letter obtained from Christy Day, Director of the WVDE Office of Communications.
“The West Virginia Department of Education shall conduct a Special Circumstance Review of Upshur County Schools at the specific direction of the State Superintendent beginning May 22, 2023, to investigate documentation submitted to WVDE through a routine Federal Programs Monitoring,” the letter from State Superintendent of Schools David L. Roach states.
In particular, Roach says the WVDE will review the “operation of federal programs” and “financial indicators and purchasing procedures.”
My Buckhannon reviewed a copy of the “West Virginia Department of Education Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSERF) LEA Monitoring Document” after a discussion of the report was tabled without comment at the Upshur County Board of Education meeting on Tuesday, May 23.
The bulk of the funding that Upshur County was asked to repay was related to family passes the school system distributed for free in the summer of 2021 to both the Upshur County Recreational Park pool and the West Virginia Wildlife Center.
“Since nothing has been shown that these passes had a programmatic purpose, these would be unallowable,” the report said.
Also, because some free passes went to Upshur County Schools employees and board members, those could be violations of the West Virginia Ethics Act, which limits the kinds of gifts public officials and employees can receive.
“Although WVDE is asking that you move these costs to local sources, please be advised that such expenditures may also constitute violations of the West Virginia Ethics Act and/or pecuniary interest statute,” the monitor report states. “Therefore, these expenditures may be deemed unallowable regardless of the funding source used. For that reason, WVDE suggests that Upshur County Schools consult with legal counsel to determine the next steps in resolving this matter.”
When contacted about the report, Upshur County Schools Finance Manager Jeffrey Perkins said he had initially hoped to offer more information at the board of education’s May 23 meeting.
“Upshur County Schools has been working on finalizing all information related to ESSER funding and thought it would be completed by the May 23 Board of Education meeting,” Perkins told My Buckhannon on May 25. “However, we did not have all data analyzed in order to share, and it will be shared at a later meeting.”
Perkins also emailed My Buckhannon the official response to the monitoring review from Upshur County Schools.
“We have been working closely with the WVDE Office of Federal Programs to resolve issues related to Covid/ESSERF funding and have provided responses, including documentation and justification of the items in question,” Perkins wrote in an email to My Buckhannon.
In total, the school system agreed to repay about $22,867 in grant funding. However, Perkins noted that because those programs remain operational, that funding will be available again for use before September 2024.
Upshur County Schools also contested the findings related to the passes to the pool and wildlife center, saying they “provided the Summer Park Passes as a part of our summer learning opportunities for the students who were out of school for the preponderance of the 2020-2021 school year. This function provided an opportunity for students to re-integrate into public functions and exercise, and provided our staff the opportunity to work with the students of our county as we worked through the COVID-19 Pandemic Emergency.”
The school system addressed the conflict-of-interest concerns as well, noting that the passes were provided based upon enrollment, not employment status.
“[The Upshur County Board of Education] has conferred with legal counsel in reference to the concern of the 116 passes provided to families of employees of Upshur County Schools and two Board of Education members,” the school system wrote in its response to the state. “Counsel has provided an opinion that since the class of those receiving was based upon enrollment and not employment status that there is not a conflict.”
In the initial ESSER I report from July 2022, the WVDE found just one item that did not meet compliance: a check to Buckhannon-Upshur High School that did not include an itemized invoice. That finding was closed when the county submitted the receipts, according to an August 2022 letter from Laura Pauley, Director, Office of Federal Programs.
However, the second ESSER II report from February 2023 lists several items totaling more than $100,000 in grant funds that did not meet compliance. The findings of non-compliance related to allowable activities include payments to:
Upshur County Commission — $62,345 for family pool passes for the summer of 2021. Entertainment costs are not allowed without prior written approval from the federal agency, the report notes. A total of 1,227 passes were purchased, but only 1,116 were assigned, leaving 111 unaccounted for. The report also notes that 116 passes were given to Upshur County Schools employees and two to board members, which could be violations of the West Virginia Ethics Act. The school system was asked to reimburse the amount of $62,325 and submit in writing what happened to the unused passes by May 8.
Upshur County Schools replied with an explanation of why they felt the costs were permitted under the grant requirements.
“[Upshur County Schools] provided the Summer Park Passes as a part of our summer learning opportunities for the students who were out of school for the preponderance of the 2020-2021 school year,” the school system wrote. “This function provided an opportunity for students to re-integrate into public functions and exercise, and provided our staff the opportunity to work with the students of our county as we worked through the COVID-19 Pandemic Emergency.”
They also said it was important to involve parents and families in the activities.
“By providing Upshur County Recreational Park passes and Wildlife Center passes to families of students participating in the Summer Learning Program, learning opportunities will be extended beyond the classroom,” the school system wrote. “These opportunities offer families experiential learning activities that involve more than just our students. By engaging families, students are supported academically, physically, socially, and emotionally. This also supports our community which continues to support our school system.”
The school system noted that students were provided books when they attended to help build home libraries.
“Our district will be providing books for each student who utilizes either or both passes each time they attend,” Upshur County Schools wrote. “This will assist in building home libraries for our students.”
The school system also said it would reimburse the $2,775 for the unaccounted passes, which were believed to be the result of a missing sign-out sheet.
“[Upshur County Schools] continues to research the ‘missing’ 111 pool passes,” the school system wrote. “We believe this is a result of a lost sign-out sheet rather than a fraudulent event.”
Finally, the school system said that since the passes were provided based upon enrollment, not employment status, the was no conflict of interest.
“[The Upshur County Board of Education] has conferred with legal counsel in reference to the concern of the 116 passes provided to families of employees of Upshur County Schools and two Board of Education members,” the school system wrote in its response. “Counsel has provided an opinion that since the class of those receiving was based upon enrollment and not employment status that there is not a conflict.”
West Virginia Wildlife Center — $21,320 for family passes for the summer of 2021. The report notes that of the 1,066 passes that were purchased, only 820 were used, leaving 246 unaccounted for. It also notes that 87 passes went to Upshur County Schools employees and two to board members. The school system was asked to reimburse the cost of $21,320 and submit in writing what happened to the unused passes by May 8.
Upshur County Schools replied that it found the unaccounted passes and would return those to the W.Va. Wildlife Center for a refund. It would then reimburse $6,396 for the unused passes.
“The [Upshur County Board of Education] Finance Office has the 246 wildlife passes on hand and will return these to the West Virginia Wildlife Center for refund,” the school system wrote. “This funding will be reimbursed as requested.”
Leggett Refrigeration — $40,000 for I-Wave Air Cleaners. No bid documentation was provided, despite a policy that requires competitive bids for purchases costing $25,000 or more. The report also notes that the quotes are dated January 2022, while the purchase order was put into place on July 1, 2020. No specific corrective action was listed.
The school system provided supplementary documentation. “[The Upshur County Board of Education] secured three bids for air purification systems for facilities that did not have ‘Fresh Air’ HVAC systems,” Upshur County Schools wrote in its response. “[Upshur County] did not provide the appropriate documentation showing the required bids were obtained. UC BOE will provide required documentation. The bids for this service are Leggett Refrigeration, Mason & Berry Electrical and G3 Electric. [Upshur County] uploaded Mason & Berry Quote dated 5/1/21, Legget Refrigeration dated 6/12/21. The G3 quote referenced is for check #92264, a different purchase.”
Amy Hackett — $5,400 for shirts. The report notes that no bid documentation was provided and that the recipient was a current employee of Upshur County Schools at the time of purchase. No specific corrective action was listed.
Upshur County Schools concurred and agreed to reimburse the funding.
CJ Maggies — $1,150 for room rentals. Because no room rental agreement was provided, the school system was asked to reimburse the $1,150 grant award.
Upshur County Schools concurred and agreed to reimburse the funding.
Fujiyama Japanese — $1,066 and Don Patron — $85. Since no itemized receipt was included, the funding must be reimbursed, the report says.
Upshur County Schools concurred and agreed to reimburse the funding. “Though the personnel involved were directed to provide itemized receipts, none were provided,” the school system said. “Those individuals were re-educated on the requirements of UC Policy 8001 and WVDE Policy 8200.”
Breeze Creative. No document was provided to show the vendor was “truly a sole source,” according to the report. No specific corrective action was listed.
“Unless documentation can be found, [Upshur County] concurs with the Breeze finding,” the school system said in its response.
The report also listed other various findings and recommendations:
- Several invoice dates were before the purchase order dates. To correct this, the county was required to submit in writing by May 8, 2023, how they will ensure purchase orders will be put in place before services are rendered. The school system replied that this was due to an “open-ended” contract with Fuel Education to provide virtual learning “with payment based on the number of participants.” Upshur County Schools will use a blanket purchase order in the future.
- Buckhannon Academy Elementary did not meet “Maintenance of Equity for FTE or Per-Pupil Expenditures.” By May 30, the school system must submit adjustments it will make to be in compliance by the start of the next school year. This was because each remote learning student was required to be assigned to a physical location, Upshur County Schools replied. “All elementary students from out-of-county were arbitrarily enrolled in BAES though they did not attend nor were they involved with the school,” the school system wrote. “The addition of over 200 virtual [students] gave the appearance of significantly changing the teacher-to-student ratio, thus giving the appearance of an unequal learning environment.”
- The school system did not “upload a policy or procedures for covering Conflicts of Interest.” The school system was required to submit in writing their conflict-of-interest policy by May 8, 2023. If no such policy exists, it must be created and submitted by June 30, 2023. “Upshur County BOE has provided our Policy 8001, which is also available on our website,” the school system replied. “This policy references and is in compliance with WVDE Policy 8200.”
- The report recommends the school system review and maintain supporting research documentation “that meets the criteria of at least one of ESSA’s four tiers of evidence” regarding activities to address learning loss.
The report found Upshur County was in compliance in several areas as well, including publishing a plan for the safe return to in-person instruction and continuity of services; submitting a plan for the use of the funds; not exceeding the approved indirect costs rate; having a clean fiscal audit; listing equipment purchased with federal funds and taking inventory every two years; completing the staff “time and effort” reports; having a system of internal controls; and complying with additional federal requirements for remodeling, renovation and new construction projects.
While other local counties also had findings of non-compliance in the ESSER II report, none were as extensive as those from Upshur County.
- Barbour County: All in compliance.
- Harrison County: Required to reimburse $1,743 for food and beverages purchased and submit documentation related to bidding requirements.
- Lewis County: Required to submit in writing procedures related to procurement and purchase orders.
- Randolph County: All in compliance.
My Buckhannon publisher Brian Bergstrom contributed to this story.