Audit Reveals Issues With Department of Education Elementary and Preschool Grants

Meryn Fluker

A state auditor report released Thursday reveals insufficient oversight and other issues from two Iowa Department of Education initiatives designed to serve at-risk children and families.

The performance audit shows that administrators failed to competitively award grants and "sufficiently monitor use of funding" for the Shared Visions Preschool Program and the Early Elementary Innovative Grants based on a review of data from July 1, 2006 through June 30, 2012.

"When programs get put on autopilot is when you run the risk of things not operating correctly," said Annette Campbell, director of the performance investigation division for Iowa's Office of the Auditor of State, though she noted the issues were not "very egregious."

"I think the department could be more active in their monitoring," she said.

The Shared Visions Preschool Program serves children ages 3 to 5 as well as their families with preschool, full-day kindergarten and additional educational services while the Early Elementary Innovative Grants – also known as the At-Risk K-3 Grants – fund kindergarten through third-grade programming for schools with large populations of students from financially disadvantaged families.

"We thought it was a fair review," said Jeff Berger, deputy director of the Iowa Department of Education. "I think some of the concerns expressed in the report were valid concerns. We went through a time in '09 and '10 when we were doing across the board cuts and struggling to make ends meet ... We were struggling to meet our obligation, there's no doubt about it."

The Cedar Rapids, Iowa City and College Community school districts are among the entities that received funding from these programs during the six years studied in the audit. The report showed that, rather than continually seek new or additional recipients, the department "instead awarded funding primarily to the same grantees each fiscal year."

Berger attributed some of that to budget cuts, in the form of a 1.5 percent reduction in 2009 followed by a 10-percent decrease in 2010.

"If you're given an amount and it just stays flat, it's harder to do that without seeing programs just disappear," he said. "We were sensitive to the fact that we wanted to make sure we were supporting good quality programs but we didn't get the funding that we thought we might ... I think some of the recipients of this grant have come to rely on this as a funding stream and it was never intended to be a funding stream. It was designed to create quality preschools where there were none."

The report did not go into detail about whether or not certain areas or populations were underserved as a result of the way the grants were administered, with many of the entities initially applying for the dollars in the late '80s and early '90s, but Campbell acknowledged that potential consequence.

"We don't have the documentation to make that determination," she said. "We have no basis to say that they were served best or they were underserved or the ones who got it shouldn't have gotten that funding but there is definitely the possibility that could've happened."

While Berger chose not to go into details about how the estimated $7 million Shared Visions and $3 million At-Risk K-3 Grant funding would be awarded for the coming fiscal year, he said department staff will work to make sure the recipient pool is "balanced" when it comes to school size, region and urban or rural setting. Grant awards should be announced in May or June 2014, he said, and changes within the department are already underway.

The report also showed that the department didn't adequately follow the money once it was dispersed, but both Berger and Campbell said there is no reason to believe funds were intentionally misspent.

The report includes recommendations for the department, such as verifying year-end reports, reviewing detailed expenditure records and requiring progress reports from programs who receive the funding.

"We're pretty confident they're going to get these recommendations in place in a timely manner," Campbell said. "I think the department has already made significant strides in making those improvements."

Berger noted that there has been staff turnover since the period included in the audit and that, along with the 2007-08 introduction of the Statewide Voluntary Preschool Program, have allowed the department to improve the process and bring the initiative back to its original purpose.

"I think we're validating the concern because those concerns are already driving us in the direction we wanted to go in ourselves," he said. "Honestly, making them reapply periodically forces them, just as this review forced us to look at what we're doing and recalibrate, it does the same on the local level ... That's a healthy process for everybody."
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