“It feels retaliatory” State agency feels Education Department ended contract as revenge

Published: Aug. 25, 2022 at 10:28 PM CDT
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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (KCRG) - Iowa’s Department for the Blind believes Iowa’s Department of Education ended two agreements worth up to $800,000 as retaliation for vocalizing its grievances over prisoners’ ability to access student data while creating school materials for vision-impaired students.

A registered sex offender, released on parole in 2021, had access to the data, according to documents presented to Iowa’s Commission for the Blind. The Department for the Blind said the Department of Education knew about the issue for more than two years, according to emails our KCRG-TV9 i9 Investigative Team reported in February.

The Iowa Department for the Blind said it has had an agreement since around 1980 to create braille and large print educational material for students that utilized federal funding. The agreement, according to the department, allows school districts to order materials for students through the department.

Emily Wharton, who is the director of Iowa’s Department for the Blind, said the Department of Education notified her department that it would end the agreement, 10 days before it was set to expire. She said the change will force individual districts to choose any vendor and pay for the materials themselves starting in October, which she believed was retaliation for her continuing to discuss prisoners having access to student’s data.

”It feels retaliatory,” Wharton said. “Yeah, I personally think it was retaliatory.”

Heather Doe, who is a spokesperson for the Iowa Department of Education, said, in a written statement, it made the decision to give schools flexibility to choose their own vendor rather than limit districts to two vendors. She also said it will allow districts to receive educational materials quicker.

“This change should expedite the procurement process, helping to ensure districts receive their educational materials quicker,” Doe said, in the statement.

A Zoom meeting from the Iowa Department of Education announcing the change didn’t discuss those specific reasons. Instead, a slideshow said the change was made to create consistency between how accessible educational materials, like closed captioning, are provided and districts are more knowledgeable on the funding sources used for individual students.

Iowa’s Department for the Blind has a contract and a grant agreement with Iowa’s Department of Education to, respectively, produce materials and pay the personnel needed.

Wharton told TV9 earlier in August the contract to produce materials was extended, but the grant to pay the personnel needed wasn’t extended. She said this resulted in a scramble to find new sources of funding to pay additional employees for additional work, like setting up invoices and collecting payments from individual districts.

“It is giving us a headache by ending this contract,” Wharton said. “We’ve taken on another half of an employee to cover the billing of it and to scramble to get districts to understand what’s going on, coming up with ways to facilitate the getting of materials. We have some districts trying to get everything in by September 30.”

As a result, documents show the Iowa Department of the Blind asked the Iowa Commission for the Blind at a special board meeting in August to use donations to help meet its payroll budget since the new process was creating cash flow problems for the state agency.

A spokesperson for the Iowa Department of Education said the new contract for the Iowa Department for the Blind was “in process” after our i9 Investigative Team asked why the grant for the personnel wasn’t expended.

It’s unclear how many students this impacts since both the Department of Education and the Iowa Department for the Blind said a different number of school districts use these services. The Iowa Department of Education said 39 districts use the program while the Iowa Department for the Blind said the number is around 64.

Wharton said she doesn’t expect to use money from gifts after her department received the extension on funding for its personnel. She said she didn’t want to speculate on the reason the education department delayed the funding for her agency’s personnel and said the situation shows the department of education’s approach to blind students is careless.

“It just seems like a lack of concern for the quality of the materials given to blind kids and that would never be acceptable to sighted kids,” Director Wharton said. “But, I feel like it’s just being passed through.”