Parents at Rock Terrace School expressed their frustration to Montgomery County Public Schools officials regarding how staff at the Rockville school handled money students earned in work-study programs, as well as how the situation was handled, during a Thursday community meeting.
Parents have raised allegations that staff misappropriated the funds. The school system and the Montgomery County State’s Attorney’s Office are investigating how staff handled the money.
For Sara Sadeghi, the situation has been motivation enough to pull her son out of Rock Terrace, though he would have graduated in 2014.
“My trust is broken,” she said in front school system officials and fellow parents. “I don’t trust him to be in this school anymore.”
The mother of another student said , “There has been a huge breach of trust” and that she had at one point decided to remove her son from the school.
“But I am choosing to be optimistic, and I’m choosing to wait to see what the outcome is because I don’t want this child to be affected,” she said.
The meeting provided the opportunity for school system officials to update parents on the investigation and for parents to ask questions.
Echoing a July 18 letter posted to the school’s website regarding the school system’s initial investigation, Larry Bowers, the system’s chief operating officer, told the parents that while there was no evidence of fraud, the school system found the programs were poorly managed and the use of the funds for school activities inappropriate.
“In other schools, that is not what happens with these funds,” he said.
Rhonda Turner, whose son participated in work-study opportunities for several years and had a bank account, said she contributed money related to school activities such as outings into the community — a point other parents have raised.
Bowers said his understanding was that money earned through the programs was used to pay for students to participate in activites when their families were unable to contribute the funds.
While the school system’s initial investigation is complete, Bowers said, some things remain unknown including how exactly the money was spent, how much money went in to the accounts, how much was taken out, and whether the money students earn through the programs should be treated as income.
Another question Bowers said he thought was important was whether the money will be restored to students. He said detailed information from the individual accounts would be necessary to do that.
“Yes, it is the students’ money, I do believe that,” Bowers said.
Answering one man’s questions about the school’s exiting principal, Bowers said Dianne G. Thornton has been cooperating with the investigation but he would not comment on whether she had hired an attorney.
Katherine Lertora, currently the coordinator/administrator at the Stephen Knolls School in Kensington, will become the school’s acting principal after Thornton retires effective Aug. 1.
Other parents raised questions about the findings of a 2011 audit of the school and the elimination of the school’s financial specialist position.
Bowers responded that he had not read the audit recently and that the responsibilities of the financial specialist were given to an administrative secretary, which is common in the school system.
Tamara Clark, whose son recently graduated from the school and had a bank account, expressed frustration that the school system had not called her and that she had seen information spread primarily by the school’s parents.
“You guys have not reached out to the community,” Clark said. “It’s been a parent calling a parent calling a parent.”
Bowers and other school system officials have said that letters were sent and automatic calls have been made to the school’s parents and staff.
Some parents at the meeting also wanted to hear an apology from Montgomery County Public Schools.
“I am sorry that this happened,” Bowers said.
The school’s financial management needs to improve, Bowers said, and the school community needs to work together.
“What happened and what we’re going to talk about should have nothing to do with what’s done every day for the students at this school,” Bowers said. “It is a very special place.”