State overpaid millions to schools

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By ROBERT MEYEROWITZ
Spearman - EOC

The Department of Education superintendent at Monday’s committee meeting

Superintendent not sure how money can be recovered

The Department of Education has been giving schools millions of dollars in excess of what they were supposed to receive.

Education Oversight Committee staffer Bunnie Ward was speaking before the full committee in Columbia Monday when she said there were “discrepancies” between enrollment and per-student payments to school districts.

“We did see an overpayment,” Ward said. “We estimate it’s between $5.1 and $6.3 million dollars during the ’15-’16 year.”

The money was paid for the Child Development Education Program, a state-funded, full-day initiative for four-year-olds.

Asked if she could explain, Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman, who serves on the oversight committee ex-officio, said, “I am extremely concerned about this.”

The Department of Education is taking steps to make sure it doesn’t happen again, Spearman said, adding, “We have called for an audit.”

Asked again how it happened, Spearman said, “What we have discovered is the program people… would report in their numbers. We mailed a check then to the financial folks in the districts.”

The department believed there were more students enrolled than was the case, she said.

“Can we get any of that money back?” asked a committe member.

“Well, we’re going to have to work with the districts on this,” Spearman said, “because it ranges from anywhere from about $20,000 to — I think the highest payment was in one district of about $700,000. Some are more apt to pay it back.”

Spearman became aware of the over-payments about three weeks ago, Ryan Brown, the chief communications officer for the Department of Education, told The Nerve. Spearman, he said, would not be available to discuss the matter until next week.

“We really started digging in at that point in time,” Brown said. “Now we have an external auditor.”

Can the state recover the money?

“We can, that is an option,” Brown said. “Pretty much every option is on the table… We could directly ask for it back from the districts… It’s not a great situation, I’ll be honest with you.”

Spearman met Tuesday with legislative leaders to tell them what had happened, Brown said.

CDEP enrollment for the 2015-2016 school year had been estimated at 13,643 to 13,771 students, according to the committee, with projected state payments of $68.3 million.