Poor management of Rock Terrace School work program cited -- Gazette.Net


This story was updated at 6:20 p.m. on July 23.

An initial investigation by Montgomery County Public Schools found the work-study program at Rock Terrace School was “poorly managed” and “money was inappropriately used,” according to a Thursday letter from Christopher S. Garran, associate superintendent of county high schools, to the school’s parents.

However, there does not appear to have been fraudulent activity by school staff, the letter says.

The Montgomery County State’s Attorney’s Office is continuing to investigate the allegations with assistance from the school system.

Thursday’s letter said the school’s principal, Dianne G. Thornton, who had been on administrative leave, announced her retirement effective Aug. 1.

The Rockville school serves developmentally disabled students.

“To date, the investigation has found that there appears to have been no attempt to intentionally defraud students and their families of funds provided to students as part of their educational program,” the letter said.

The letter was posted on the school’s website late last week and a recorded phone call went out to parents and staff directing them to the letter, said Dana Tofig, a spokesman for the school system.

Parents claimed weeks ago that the school’s administration had misappropriated the funds.

Tofig said he could not comment on whether Thornton’s retirement was related to the investigation, saying it was a personnel matter.

Reached by phone on Monday, Thornton said she was not interested in commenting.

Tofig said the investigation involved interviews with several parents and the school’s staff.

Student bank account records at the school were found “incomplete” and the Montgomery County State’s Attorney’s Office will request account records from the Educational Systems Federal Credit Union using subpoenas, the letter said.

Accounts were created at the credit union to hold money students earned through work-study experiences.

The school system also sent a second letter to the family of every student known to have a credit union account or who was in the payroll system, Tofig said in an email, adding that families of students from prior years were included.

“MCPS sent letters home to comply with the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act so that we could share information that would allow the State’s Attorney’s office to subpoena records from the credit union and provide other information to assist in the State’s Attorney’s investigation,” he said in the email.

The second letter said the school system’s investigation, which is continuing, “has not found criminal wrongdoing.”

“Nevertheless, MCPS and the State’s Attorney’s Office believe that a thorough investigation requires complete bank records on the credit union accounts that were opened by students, with staff assistance, as part of their transition to work educational experience,” it said.

The school system’s initial investigation found that some money Rock Terrace students had earned through the program had been put toward school activities. Other work experience programs in the system’s high schools generally treat the money as the students’, according to the first letter, which was posted on the school website.

Some parents also were not told the students were being paid or about the bank accounts, the letter says.

The school’s work program will continue during the upcoming school year, as will other high schools’ programs, but the stipends will be put on hold “until the district is able to clarify whether these stipends should be treated as earned income.”

Garran said in the letter that a community meeting at 7 p.m. Thursday at the school will give parents the chance to hear about the investigation from school system staff and ask questions.

Tofig said it is likely that Larry Bowers, the school system’s chief operating officer, Garran and members of the system’s special education department would be at the meeting.

He said he did not know if Thornton would attend.

Lyda Astrove, a Rockville lawyer and special-education advocate working with Rock Terrace parents, said she was pleased to hear about the community meeting.

“I think that is an excellent first step toward bringing this all to a resolution,” she said.

Astrove said she thinks that questions remain, including those about how much the students made, where exactly the money went and if the students will see the money.

“This isn’t a happy thing for all these families that this happened but this is the first step on the road to making it right,” she said.

Tamara Clark, whose son recently graduated and earned money while a student there, said she was bothered by the school system’s decision to suspend the stipends for all students in the work-study programs.

“They [the students] have an opportunity to get paid for work, and now they’re punishing everybody,” Clark said.

Clark called the letter posted to the website “wimpy” and said she still has a lot of questions.

“I want to know where the money went,” she said. “And I want to know why us parents weren’t told.”