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Tuesday, February 19th, 2008

A waiting game for Minster schools

By Shelley Grieshop

Minster Local Schools Superintendent Gayl Ray, left, and Treasurer Laura Kloster. . .

MINSTER - It's a tense time for Minster Local School officials with teacher contract negotiations on the horizon and the possibility of owing more than $300,000 to the feds for the illegal operation of a former community school.
Board members meeting Monday night issued a prepared statement about the federal audit last week by the Ohio Department of Education, which could result in the school reimbursing the government approximately $329,000 in funds received by Minster Local Schools to operate the Minster Community Schools from 2004 to 2006.
"Upon complaints to the federal Department of Education, we have recently been audited ... for federal grant compliance," board President Jeff Monnin read aloud at the school board meeting.
School Superintendent Gayl Ray told The Daily Standard last week the school could be ordered to repay the six-digit figure, she hopes via a payment plan, with a possible 1.5 to 5 percent penalty fee tacked on. Or, the issue could simply be dropped since the auditors found the money was entirely spent on the students and no criminal or malicious intent was found, she said.
The main problem appears to be that the community school only existed on paper and was not a separate division of the school system.
The findings of the federal audit are expected within the next two months and will include a recommendation by the U.S. Attorney General, Ray said.
The audit reportedly was prompted by anonymous complaints filed with the U.S. Department of Education, according to the board's prepared statement. Ray said the auditors did not tell her who filed the complaints or when. Federal officials contacted last week by the newspaper refused to comment on the audit.
Board members noted in their prepared statement that the community school, while still in operation, underwent three separate audits by the state auditor's office and the state department of education and received favorable responses with recommendations to continue.
A federal audit was never conducted until someone alerted those authorities. Both state and federal grant money was issued to the community school while it was operating.
The federal audit is being closely watched by members of the teachers union, who are scheduled to meet with the board next month to begin contract talks. The teachers' current three-year contract expires this year. Teachers union Co-Presidents Paul Winglewich and Barb Heitkamp attended Monday night's meeting and spoke briefly about their concern.
"We're just going to see what happens," Winglewich said.
Both presidents said they did not find out about the federal audit until Thursday - two days after it was completed. School officials received a letter from the U.S. Department of Education last fall stating its intention to audit the school, and auditors notified the school more than two weeks ago about their scheduled visit on Feb. 11 and 12.
The Minster Community School officially opened during the 2004-2005 school year and remained open through the first half of the 2005-2006 year. In a school newsletter from April 2004, then Superintendent Hal Belcher stated the goal of the community school was to "generate funds for the operation of our schools from sources that are not normally available to public school districts. Our school is a conversion school," he wrote.
Belcher also said the advantage of creating the school was that "we will receive grant monies that can be used to purchase supplies, equipment, teacher in-service and other such items that will benefit all students in the Minster Local Schools. These funds will help offset costs to our taxpayers ... Our students and parents do not stand to lose anything ... Basically, this is a paper issue."
Ray became superintendent in August 2005 and was in sync with members of the board who agreed to close the community school and return the unspent grant money, she said.
The brief statement read by Monnin on Monday listed one reason for closing the community school (also called a charter school) as an "inability to meet the instructional activities outlined in the proposal to the Ohio Department of Education."
Ray previously said the community school was a school "only on paper" and not set up as the state had originally intended.
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