By Jerome Tharaud/Havre Daily Newsemail@example.com
The state Office of Public Instruction has denied an appeal by two area Hutterite colonies that OPI expand its investigation into how much Havre Public Schools has shortchanged the colonies in Title I funds.
"The bottom line is, it's done at the state level at this point," Spencer Sartorius, state deputy superintendent of schools, said today. The colonies have 30 days from Oct. 31 to appeal OPI's decision to the U.S. Department of Education.
Joe Waldner, the school administrator of East End Colony, said today the colony will appeal. The school administrator of Hilldale Colony, Dave Kleinsasser, said he is unsure whether that colony will appeal.
The original appeal, filed by East End and Hilldale colonies on Sept. 17, requested that OPI extend its examination of HPS' administration of federal Title I funding levels back to 1980.
OPI, after investigating a complaint from the colonies, already has concluded that Havre Public Schools withheld $52,530 worth of services to East End Colony between 1995 and 2001, and $64,130 worth of services to Hilldale Colony between 1997 and 2001.
Title I funds are federal dollars allocated every year to help students in public and private schools who are both poor and determined to be two years or more below grade level. Title I funds are not paid directly to schools, but are used to provide services like additional teachers, paraprofessionals and educational materials.
The appeal also asked the state to require HPS to provide additional educational services to colony residents who who attended school between 1980 and the mid-1990s, and to reimburse the colonies for administrative and service costs associated with identifying and correcting the mistakes, estimated at $18,500.
OPI released its decision Friday afternoon. All three requests were denied.
HPS had admitted making an error in calculating Title I funds before the complaint was filed, and over the past two years has compensated the colonies for some of the services withheld. After the colonies filed a complaint, OPI found HPS still owed the colonies a total of about $68,000.
OPI gave Havre Public Schools until the end of the 2006-2007 school year to compensate the colonies and put in place stricter reporting measures to prevent similar errors in the future.
The colonies had 20 days after an Aug. 28 meeting between the two parties and OPI to appeal OPI's ruling. On Sept. 17 the colonies requested a hearing with OPI, which was held in Helena on Oct21. Havre Public Schools was notified of the hearing but did not attend.
At the hearing, the colonies presented additional enrollment numbers going back to 1980. They asked OPI to require Havre Public Schools to provide "compenpensatory education" services to students who they say did not receive the appropriate levels of Title I services. The colonies had not calculated an estimate of the amount withheld back to 1980, said Cathy Warhank, chief legal counsel at OPI, who made the decision on the appeal.
The colonies also requested reimbursement for "reasonable costs in auditing, accounting, researching, monitoring and requiring Havre Public Schools to comply" with Title I guidelines. The colonies asked to be reimbursed for about 738 hours hours at $25 per hour for a total of about $18,500, Warhank said.
OPI's response said it would not go back before 1995 because before that year, state law did not require OPI to calculate the amount of Title I funds allocated to each pupil. The colonies also could not provide that data for those years, Warhank said.
"I felt it would have been arbitrary to make a decision based on less-than-concrete data," she said.
The request to give compensatory education to students who previously attended colony schools would violate federal regulations specifying that Title I funds can only be allocated for current students, Warhank said.
Regarding the third request for reimbursement, OPI's decision said: "The OPI has no authority under federal statute or regulations to award fees."
Sartorius said today he thinks the decision is fair.
"Personally I think the decision coming out of this office was fair in the first place, and I think the decision is still fair," he said.
He added that he thinks the U.S. Department of Education will come to the same conclusion OPI did if the colonies appeal.
"I think we've done a good job doing our homework, and my feeling is, if it went to the U.S. Department of Education it would just validate what we've already done."
HPS Superintendent Kirk Miller was not available for comment today. Last week, Miller said he did not attend the Oct. 27 meeting because the appeals process does not involve Havre Public Schools.
"The effort there is between OPI and the colonies," he said.