What follows is an investigative story about the Special Education program run by the Louisiana Department of Education which reveals how numerous players have profited by funneling Federal IDEA funds to their own pet projects and personnel.
This illegal misappropriation of public money has left many special education students, parents, and district staff without the support those federal funds were mandated to provide.
My story has many twists, turns, and villains, but I will try to lay out the details as clearly as I can. This story exposes what appears to be criminal behavior and corruption at our highest levels of government. There is undoubtedly more to the story than I know or will be able to relay here, but I will present what I have and let the public, legislators and law enforcement agencies decide if this matter is worth investigating further using tools beyond my power.
A few months ago I received a letter from a concerned Special Education activist in Louisiana. This source to whom I have given anonymity provided some internal documents prepared by the Louisiana Department of Education which were distributed to certain Louisiana legislators. Much of the information provided had been previously relayed to me over several years, but I have been unable to prove those assertions, until now.
The first element that was revealed to me is that LDOE has destroyed the Special Education Department. Most of the staff who previously dealt with Special Education issues were reassigned or fired, but LDOE kept the money the federal government was providing specifically to support special education staff. To justify this, LDOE allocated these funds I to 129 different staff members across the department, many of whom had absolutely nothing to do with Special Education. I have provided a list of these allocations as attachments labeled “salary” and “salary 2”. I’m told this documentation was provided to Representative John Schroeder when the department was trying to make a case that they did not have the necessary staff to comply with Act 833. (Act 833 was signed into law in 2014 and requires LDOE to provide alternate graduation requirement guidelines for certain disabled students.)
According to guidance documents I have provided, it is acceptable for LDOE to allocate salaries on a pro-rata basis. However, this basis must be determined by the employee for the amount of time they actually spend solely on Special Education issues. Employees are required to sign off every week on “Time-and-Effort Certifications” like the one shown below:
As you can see, employees are supposed to document how much time they spend on actual Special Education focused issues and to then sign this affidavit. Their supervisors then sign off on this form. However employees at LDOE do not enter the percentages. Their supervisors provide documents with these percentages already filled out, or they instruct their employees what numbers they must use based on how they have been allocated for budgeting purposes, not based on any actual work. Many of the LDOE employees allocated to Special Education couldn’t work on Special Education issues if they tried. Employees that have tried to refuse committing fraud have been threatened with immediate termination by their supervisors. One source I interviewed relayed a story I had been told several times before.
“…when one LDOE employee said he/she did not want to sign the verification sheet – because it was untrue – the person was told the alternative was to be fired.”
Some state employees are blackmailed into committing payroll fraud every week. They cannot reveal this because they cannot prove the supervisor told them they would be fired for not signing the sheet, and if they confess to committing the fraud, the supervisor can claim they were ignorant of the situation and the employee acted on his/her own. This would result in the employee being fired and then subject to criminal charges. (This is how many criminal organizations and gangs trap people in cycles of crime. Once you commit a crime, that crime can be held over you to keep you silent and to blackmail you into additional criminal activity.) Below is one of the relevant federal directives:
Support for Salaries and Wages of an Employee Working on a Single Cost Objective
The Appendix to 2 C.F.R. Part 225 (formerly OMB Circular A-87, Cost Principles for State, Local, and Indian Tribal Governments) requires an employee whose salary and wages are supported, in whole or in part, with Federal funds to document his/her time spent working on Federal programs in order to ensure that charges to each Federal program reflect an accurate account of the employee’s time and effort devoted to that program. The Appendix addresses two types of documentation: semiannual certifications and personnel activity reports.
Personnel activity reports
If an employee works on multiple activities or cost objectives, a distribution of the employee’s salary and wages must be supported by a personnel activity report (PAR) or equivalent documentation. The Appendix lists instances of multiple activities or cost objectives for which a PAR is required — that is, if an employee works on –
- • More than one Federal award.
- • A Federal award and a non-Federal award.
- • An indirect cost activity and a direct cost activity.
- • Two or more indirect activities that are allocated using different allocation bases.
- • An unallowable activity and a direct or indirect cost activity.
A PAR must –
- • Reflect an after-the-fact distribution of the actual activity of the employee.
- • Account for the total activity for which each employee is compensated.
- • Be prepared at least monthly and coincide with one or more pay periods.
- • Be signed by the employee.
Employees are told what to put on their timesheets and if they refuse to do so and sign off on them, they are threatened with termination. That is clearly not what the USDOE had in mind when they issued their guidance.
LDOE was asked about their special education resources, alignment and composition in a December 17, 2014, Joint House and Senate Education Committee hearing. They responded on January 5, 2015, describing how they had reorganized internally to better address Special Education classes concerns that could potentially span across the department. Here is the question they answered and LDOE’s response:
8. Please identify the Department’s Special Education staff and describe their support of local school systems.
Historically the Department has been organized into a fragmented system of divisions in which various elementary and secondary school sectors have been isolated – not only special education, but also career and technical education, curriculum, educator support, assessments, accountability, federal programs, early childhood education, and more. This structure did not foster planning or collaboration among divisions, nor did it reflect the real-world environments of public schools where all of these needs must be addressed every day in the same schools, even in the same classrooms. The isolation of special education staff, in particular, ran contrary to the goals of inclusion for students to be able to participate in and benefit from the total educational experience as their non-disabled peers.
Because special education is a service for student who need it, and because all Department of Education staff and local school system staff are obligated to providing that service, not just “special education” staff, the Department began integrating special education supports throughout the agency:
Network Teams: […]
Program Staff: […]
Most of this passage is gobbledygook designed to take up space and bore the reader into dozing off and accepting LDOE’s presumed expertise on the subject. The section I’ve highlighted is the basis under which LDOE is operating. Their reasoning is not supported by federal laws, regulations or policies, but it does describe the philosophy they are providing to legislators.
In plain speak, what LDOE is saying is:
“Because all school systems have or could have disabled students, and all support staff provide information for all students (which include disabled students), all employees support disabled students.”
This is not just wrong but the opposite of what the federal government has provided this funding for. LDOE knows this is wrong, but they are willfully ignoring the laws and relevant federal guidance because no one is holding them accountable for following state and federal laws and policies.
LDOE is using earmarked Special Education funding as a way to boost employees’ salaries and employ personnel for the programs they deem more important that Special Education.
As a result:
- Many initiatives such as 833, an alternative pathway for disabled students to earn a diploma, are faltering.
- Students are being denied services and corporally punished for their conduct related to their disabilities.
- Parents are being told to fill out invasive surveys and are required to provide information illegally in order for their children to receive services.
- Charter schools are not only refusing to provide disabled students services but are being paid money for services they never provided.
- The state and RSD are being sued on a regular basis because of their handling of Special Education.
Some of the complaints against RSD and LDOE involved students with disabilities being repeatedly locked in closets or disciplined for minor infractions until they could be expelled.
Leskisher Luckett, whose third-grade son was repeatedly locked in a school closet as a means of punishment, described the effect this discrimination has had on her son. “After being treated like a lost cause for years, Darren has come to believe that about himself. My son, my 9-year old son, is too young to give up on his education.”
Robyn Flanery’s daughter began suffering from profound emotional troubles upon entering the seventh grade. But rather than receive any type of services to address her condition, she was repeatedly punished for minor infractions until she was finally expelled from the school she had attended since kindergarten. Ms. Flanery reported that this led to even greater emotional trauma.
These situations are largely attributed to the fact that special education coordinators across the state are lacking in guidance (have lacked it for years), direction and training on special education issues. The state is provided millions of dollars annually to employ staff to support school district personnel, but they are shirking these duties. Taxpayers are not getting what they are paying for. Instead, taxpayers are now also paying for lawsuits and settlements because disabled children and their parents are suffering abuse, neglect and ignorance as a result of the incompetence and lack of expertise of staff employed by the LDOE.
For this story, numerous parents and other sources involved with Special Education in Louisiana were interviewed and asked to provide their thoughts on LDOE and their handling of Special Education for the state.
Liz Gary, a mother of a student receiving special education services in St Tammany, and a staunch Special Education rights advocate in Louisiana had this to say about LDOE’s recent changes to how they handle (or don’t handle) Special Education training and oversight:
The state department has offered no training, professional development or oversight in years. They believe their webinars and newsletter is all that is needed. Unfortunately, as you know, they have let a lot of experienced people go and replaced them with inexperienced people. It is not good. If districts are not doing what they are supposed to do there is no one to monitor them because the state department is not doing it.
Districts are not doing what they are supposed to be doing. I’ve heard this refrain many times for years. This cry has only gotten louder since State Superintendent John White destroyed the Special Education department in the name of improving coordination and efficiency.
White and his staff dismissed, demoted or drove off most of the qualified and experienced staff members and replaced them with politically driven appointments like the current Special Education Policy Director Jamie Wong. Jamie spent a few years teaching pre-k and kindergarten in DC as a TNTP teacher. (TNTP is The New Teacher Project, an organization founded by the now discredited Michelle Rhee, a former Teach for America Alum who is widely believed to have rigged test scores and overlooked or even encouraged cheating during her tenure as the Superintendent of DC public schools.) Jamie now earns $95,000 a year at LDOE with only a few years of teaching experience. Not so coincidentally, Jamie Wong is married to Michael Thomas Wong, one of the chief campaign strategists for Senator David Vitter who is widely presumed to be Louisiana’s next governor. It appears that Michael Wong is paid at least $90,000 to serve as Vitter’s Capital Area Director, and gubernatorial campaign advisor and strategist. Michael’s salary for just 6 months of last year was $43,318.54.
Sources have claimed that Jamie’s job is a quid pro quo from John White to David Vitter, who is presumed to be John White’s next boss as the Governor of Louisiana.
Perhaps that is true, or perhaps that was just the icing on the cake, but what I want to know is why no one else in Louisiana or at the Department of Education was considered qualified for her position? I’m having trouble understanding why a recent college graduate living in DC (someone with a few years of teaching experience and a degree in political science from Southern Mississippi) is in charge overseeing all Special Education for the State of Louisiana, or why she was appointed when folks with 30 and 40 years of Special Education teaching and experience and PhDs were cast aside.
Dr. Laureen Mayfield, President of the Louisiana Association of Special Education Administrators (LASEA), had this to say about LDOE’s recent attempt at implementing Act 833:
They are not rolling out the training until August, after school has begun for many of us. The Special Education Directors and Supervisors in the state have clearly communicated to LDOE that they needed advanced training on writing IEPs for students pursuing an alternate pathway to graduation under Act 833. In addition, LASEA members have repeatedly expressed that they do not need “IEP Writing 101” for beginning teachers, but instead, higher level training for experienced teachers who just need guidance on developing thoughtful, effective IEPs for Act 833. The drafts modules that have been shown to a stakeholder group, however, appeared to be basic “what is an IEP and how do you write it” information—which is exactly what LASEA clearly communicated they did not need. We will not know until August if LSU listened to feedback from directors, or if the modules will “have Act 833 embedded in them” by including a slide or two quoting from the legislation.
LDOE has as many as a third to one half of their workforce reportedly dedicated to Special Education issues. According to LDOE’s own report to the legislature in January, these staff members were imbedded across all areas of the department, particularly curriculum, and yet they had to obtain a quarter million dollar contract with Alan Coulter at the LSU Human Development Center to provide guidance and training for Act 833 which is what the preceding comments are referring to.
However, instead of actually providing that training, the Human Development Center produced a basic “IEP 101” course because LDOE, under John White, with 129 special education staffers, had lost the capacity to do even the most basic Special Education task.
One former attendee of previous professional development sessions hosted by LDOE (in the pre-John White days) reminisced about how LDOE used to tend to Special Education issues:
Pre-White [and former state superintendent Paul Pastorek] the Special Ed Directors from the entire state, including those in charters, met for quarterly meetings in BR with the Special Ed State Director and all the SPED staff. It was a whole day meeting and they updated us on everything–changes to laws, innovative practices, etc.
In addition to that, an Ad Hoc group […] met monthly with Susan Batson and all the SPED staff at the LDOE. We went over everything going on of importance, including vetting and discussing any changes they wanted to make to bulletins. We talked and “argued” professionally until we all came to consensus. They also kept us up to date on all changes we needed to know about, listened to our concerns, and actually addressed them.
I also spoke with former staff members from LDOE to get their take on what had happened. Here is one of the descriptions:
You can point out that every student with disabilities in Louisiana has been affected by the greed and political aspirations of our so-called leaders. Districts have no guidance from LDOE because anyone with any knowledge or experience in special Ed has been run off either by layoffs or out of sheer disgust over the way things are being done. They (districts) are left to figure it out for themselves. The districts with stronger special Ed leaders are surviving; those with weaker leadership – not so much.
One parent from Central had this to say. Her children were denied Special Education services at Tanglewood elementary because she refused to fill out an offensive questionnaire asking about her elementary children’s sexual experiences and drug use and if anyone might have abused them.
Things are much better homeschooling. Two of my kids were finally able to skip a grade, so now they are working at a level that actually challenges them. My two that needed IEPs are getting one on one and are able to work at their own pace. And I’m NOT accountable to BESE :) Maybe they’ll get their act together, and a few of them will get unseated. Maybe John White would be de-throned. Then I would maybe consider public school again. I looked at the website for Tanglewood so I could give you the name of the lady who told me my son could receive “intervention” but no “services” unless I filled out that stupid paper. She’s not on there anymore, so I don’t know what happened with her.
Of course refusing services because a parent refused to complete an illegal questionnaire is illegal, but despite 129 employees being paid at LDOE with Special Education funds, there is literally no one to train these folks, no one to oversee them, no one for parents to complain to and obtain any help. Parents are forced to either subject themselves to illegal requirements or have their services illegally denied. Parents are forced to withdraw their kids and homeschool them or simply forced to watch their kids suffer while LDOE and John White doles out SPED funding to vastly unqualified political appointees.
St Tammany and Central are by no means the only school systems suffering from neglect and malfeasance. Most of our districts are suffering in one way or another but cataloguing all the stories would require several volumes.
This last story clearly illustrates the situation. I contacted Kathy Edmonston, the Parent Resource Facilitator for the Ascension Parish School System, to get her take on Special Education in Louisiana under LDOE’s guidance. (Kathy is also a District 6 candidate for the upcoming 2015 BESE election.) She had this to say about how disabled children are faring in her parish school system:
Hey Jason. Thank you for taking time to express concern for our SPED kids. They are struggling so much with the new standards. My title is Parent Resource Facilitator for Ascension Parish School System. It looks as if it has been forgotten at DOE as it is difficult for parents to find any one there to talk to when they are experiencing difficulty in their schools. I have not been told so, but it seems that SPED department at state department has been dismantled. We in Ascension have done pretty well moving along with Act 833. It will be more fully implemented this coming school year. The transition has been difficult as the DOE has given very little guidance. If there had not been an ACT 833 steering committee established to stay on them, I am not sure if we would have gotten any direction! Fortunately, we have a very good SPED director in Ascension who didn’t wait, but started digging right away and communicating with other parishes, so at the end of the year, most of our teachers knew what to do. Since the implementation of the current [Common Core] standards, our SPED students are experiencing lots of stress and difficulty because they are taught and tested on standards that are above their academic functioning level. It is so sad. Parents have nowhere to turn, and teachers can’t answer their questions!
When I explained to Kathy many of the things I’d heard from the Ascension Parish leadership and that everything there was peachy keen, she had this to say:
Nothing is going peachy anywhere in the state right now!!!!!!!!!!!! Ascension is struggling just like all other parishes in the state with the new “transformation” we are experiencing. Our parents, teachers, but most importantly, our children.
I’d say that about sums things up nicely.
Note: ( Liz Gary was not a member of SEAP. This piece has been edited to reflect that change. We apologize for this error.)