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State auditor: DPI spent federal coronavirus relief money without plan to monitor effectiveness, spending

Staffers distribute meals at a Triangle-area school in March

The North Carolina Department of Public Instruction (DPI) spent $76 million in Coronavirus Relief Funds on a summer learning program, nutrition services and other economic support for schools without procedures in place to monitor spending or to determine whether the money achieved desired results, according to an audit released Tuesday by the Office of the State Auditor.

The money is part of $3.59 billion the state received through the federal government through the CARES Act.

DPI received $316 million to support its operations during the pandemic. It passed much of the money on to school districts.

In part, the audit found that DPI distributed:

  • $31 million of Coronavirus Relief Funds for the Summer Learning Program without a method to ensure student ability was improved.
  • $37 million of Coronavirus Relief Funds for nutrition services without establishing a method to measure results.

“The Department of Public Instruction [DPI] did not monitor federal funds distributed to public school units to provide economic support in the wake of COVID-19,” the audit stated. “As a result, there was an increased risk that public school units could have misused the funds without the misuse being detected.”

The two items were the focus of the findings but cover only a portion of Relief Funds distributed to the Summer Learning Program and nutrition services.

The total allocation for school nutrition was $75 million to provide meals for students and families after the pandemic forced schools to close in mid-March. The Summer Learning Program received $70 million to provide supplemental summer learning programs for students in grades K-4 whose learning was negatively affected by the pandemic. Approximately $31 million had been distributed as of Aug. 31.

But the audit’s scope also covers $30 million allocated to buy computers or other electronic devices for students and $5 million to purchase computers or other electronic devices for use by school personnel.

State Superintendent Mark Johnson

DPI issued a statement Wednesday blaming the State Board of Education for the lack of monitoring in the Summer Learning Program,

“NC public schools had a diagnostic tool to measure student learning to maximize individual student learning opportunities, but the contract for that diagnostic tool was terminated by the State Board of Education, against the advice of DPI subject matter experts,” DPI’s statement said. “The Board’s termination left NC public schools with less ability to measure the impact of these programs.”

The statement refers to the state board’s termination of the state’s contract with Istation, the vendor contracted by Superintendent Mark Johnson to provide North Carolina with the K-3 reading diagnostic tool mandated by the General Assembly as part of the North Carolina’s Read to Achieve legislation.

The $8.3 million contract award led to months of legal wrangling. Amplify, a competing vendor, filed a protest with the NC Department of Information Technology charging that the contract was unfairly awarded to Istation.

DPI also stood behind its distribution of funds to nutrition services.

“These funds were meant to ensure children usually fed at school, and even those who weren’t, would not go hungry during this pandemic while schools were closed,” DPI said. Additional requirements that some would demand would have likely risked that already vulnerable children across NC would have gone hungry. Put another way, when it comes to trying to feed hungry children during a pandemic, DPI did not let the perfect stand in the way of the good.”

But without proper monitoring, the Department could not detect misuse of Recovery Act funds, the audit said.

Summer learning program

The audit found that DPI spent $31 million on its summer learning program without establishing procedures to ensure that it improved students’ ability to read or do math.

It also failed to ensure that students negatively impacted by the pandemic were identified so they could participate in the program, and didn’t record the percentage of identified students who actually participated in the program, the audit said.

DPI did create a policy that included the program purpose and eligible uses for the money, the audit said, but did not establish procedures to ensure the program improved student ability.

“As a result, the Department [DPI] spent $31 million in taxpayer money without knowing how much or even whether student ability was improved.

DPI should “gather the information needed to determine how much or even whether student ability was improved by the summer learning program,” the audit recommended.

School nutrition

DPI distributed $37 million for nutrition services to ensure school lunches continued for children and families that needed them after schools closed for in-person instruction in March.

The auditor’s office charged that DPI failed to establish a method to ensure the lunches achieved results. Read more

Courts & the Law, News

Advocacy groups announce partial settlement in lawsuit over hospital discrimination against blind patients

Nash Hospitals, Inc. agrees to pay $150,000, plus attorney fees; suit continues against UNC Health Care

Two years ago, the National Federation of the Blind, Disability Rights North Carolina and individual blind patients sued UNC Health Care System and Nash Hospitals, Inc. (which does business as “Nash UNC Health Care”) for systematic discrimination.

The lawsuit, which was brought under the terms of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Rehabilitation Act, and the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, alleged that blind patients did not receive critical communications in alternate formats — such as Braille, large print, or electronic documents — but only in standard print. This failure caused financial and personal hardships for blind patients and prevented them from keeping their medical information private.

Today, the advocacy groups announced that a settlement had been reached with one of the defendants in the case. This is from a news release distributed this morning:

“Nash Hospitals, Inc. will pay $150,000 in damages and attorneys’ fees to settle legal claims by a blind Rocky Mount, NC man whom Nash General Hospital refused to provide written materials in Braille. The National Federation of the Blind, America’s civil rights organization of the blind, and Disability Rights North Carolina also agreed to not pursue further litigation against Nash Hospitals, Inc. for its past failures to provide written materials in formats accessible to the blind.

John Bone received emergency medical care at Nash General Hospital. Mr. Bone’s claims stemmed from his inability to read bills and other communications from Nash relating to his medical care because they were not provided to him in Braille, either at all or on a timely basis, resulting in collection agencies pursuing him for debts that he was unaware he owed. Importantly, these debts are also being forgiven as part of the settlement.”

The announcement went on to say that while Nash Hospitals, Inc. is no longer part of the lawsuit, the litigation against UNC Health Care System, will continue:

“Timothy Miles, Mr. Bone, the National Federation of the Blind, and Disability Rights NC allege that UNC Health Care System systematically discriminates against blind people by failing to provide them written information in formats they can access, such as large print, Braille, and accessible electronic formats, that enable them to participate in their care and make timely payments on their medical bills.”

National Federation for the Blind President Mark Riccobono

According to Mark Riccobono, President of the National Federation of the Blind, it ought not to be that difficult for UNC to accommodate blind patients. “With today’s technology, providing bills, medical records, and treatment instructions in alternative formats, such as Braille and large print, is readily achievable,” he said. “We are happy to work with healthcare entities who want guidance in providing medical information in accessible formats.”

Disability Rights NC executive director Virginia Knowlton Marcus said she hoped the settlement would send a message to health care providers. “Sighted people count on receiving printed bills from their healthcare providers, reviewing the charges, and negotiating with medical providers and the insurance company if they believe they were charged incorrectly,” she said. “Blind patients like Mr. Bone should not have to wrangle for their right to billing information in a format they can access, or live in fear of building up late fees and damaging their credit due to bills that are impossible for them to read.”


Four locals in line for state “distressed utilities” money

Three towns and a sewer district are in line to get money from a new state fund intended to help public utilities that the local fees can no longer support.

The State Infrastructure Authority and the Local Government Commission have designated the sewer systems in the towns of Eureka, Kingstown, and the Cliffside Sanitary District, and the water and sewer systems in the town of Bethel distressed utilities. They are being considered for grants of between $100,000 and $400,000 to pay for tasks such as rate and merger studies.

Eureka and Cliffside have also received grants to cover their operating deficits.

The designations and the money spring from a law passed this year setting up a $9 million Viable Utility Fund intended to help troubled utilities become self-sustaining.

The state Treasurer’s office already controls Eureka’s and the Cliffside Sanitary District’s finances.

Aging water and sewer systems throughout the state don’t raise enough from declining customer bases to pay for operations, debt, or repairs.

“What’s happening in rural North Carolina, especially eastern North Carolina is not a revolution, it’s an evolution,” State Treasurer Dale Folwell said at a news conference Tuesday.

These four represent a small fraction of public utilities in trouble.

A study of capital cost needs highlighted in the State Water Infrastructure Authority 2017 master plan estimated $10 billion to $15 billion for water systems and $7 billion to $11 billion for sewer systems over 20 years.

Gov. Roy Cooper proposed a $800 million bond for local water and sewer projects as part of his 2019 budget. The legislature did not consider it.

COVID-19, News

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