DOE Follows $1.6 Billion in Stimulus Money . . . but Only So Far

John Mooney | October 11, 2012 | Education
Safeguards recommended several years ago by state monitors still not in place

When the first round of federal stimulus money was handed out several years ago, New Jersey public schools were scolded by state monitors for not having adequate safeguards in place to ensure that the $1.6 billion was properly spent.

With the money gone and the state’s monitoring completed, the Department of Education this month released the summary findings for the nearly 100 districts getting the bulk of the aid.

Guess what: According to the state at least, safeguards are still not in place in too many places.

In his department’s annual summary of the results of the monitoring sent to all districts last week, state Education Commissioner Chris Cerf wrote that there continues to be a number common failings.

For example, while the federal EduJobs funding was intended to help create or retain teachers and other staff jobs, more than a quarter of the districts sampled did not keep adequate accounting of what jobs were created or retained.

Elsewhere, four out of five districts did not follow proper bidding requirements for purchasing services with the federal money. State law permits certain exemptions, but the federal rules did not.

“Items such as professional development and software purchases have been a major source of noncompliance,” read the report.

And in the Title I grants for low-income students that are the bulk of federal spending in public schools, more than 70 percent failed to follow protocols for involving or communicating with parents in the offered programs.

Neither the monitoring report nor state officials afterward said that districts had committed any improprieties, but the letter provides a stark reminder on the extensive rules that were put in place — and in this case not always followed.

The state’s monitoring teams completed reviews of 90 districts in all, including the Newark, Jersey City, Paterson, and other cities. But it also included its share of suburban districts, such as Cherry Hill, Montclair, Piscataway, and Wayne. A half-dozen charter schools were also monitored. Virtually all of the reviews were conducted in 2010 and 2011.

The monitoring included for the first time a review of how these districts also spent federal stimulus aid under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

Those findings were not much better, especially for districts tracking their students in private programs and failing to have proper accounting guidelines in place for them.

A quarter of the districts also failed to have proper accounting of their IDEA-funded staff, and one in seven were using IDEA money to buy supplies that were not identified in the students’ individualized education plans (IEP).

“Almost all of the districts that had full special education monitoring had issues relating to IEPs.,” Cerf wrote.

State officials said that the latest monitoring report was not meant to be punitive, but only to alert districts to common shortcomings. Each of the districts’ individual reports came with specific recommendations and findings districts were required to correct, officials said.

“The monitoring clearly shows that districts continue to need guidance of the allowable use of funds,” said Barbara Morgan, a department spokeswoman. “Where there is support and guidance needed, our staff is available to provide it.”