The state Department of Education is looking into a contract grant for a Mount Vernon school after activists raised concerns about giving millions of dollars to a single county to provide a wide range of services.
“NYSED reached out to the field and requested information related to the termination of contracts associated with this (federal school improvement grant vendor),” the Department of Education said in a statement to Journal News/lohud.
The department said it had “initial discussions with the district” about the matter.
This action prompted the Mount Vernon, Long Island-based school board to choose an accounting firm to conduct an “independent comprehensive audit” of the district’s grant program. The school board and Superintendent Waveline Bennett-Conroy issued a promise on Oct. 27 to do so, saying questions about the grants deserve answers and not just confirmations.
In the case, about 50 grants worth more than $8 million have been donated to a West-Nyack-based limited liability corporation called Just Inspira since 2016, the year Just Inspira was formed. The grants are largely federally funded School Improvement Grants that are provided by the state Department of Education to school districts and individual schools that are classified as in need of improvements.
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Activists also asked if Bennett-Conroy’s son, who works in the school district, has any guests at Just Inspire. Marlon Stephenson worked with the owner of Just Inspire, Susan Maher, on another partnership that he contracted with the Mount Vernon school district in 2015 and 2016 before Maher formed Just Inspire.
Late Wednesday, the school board issued an order asking Cerini & Associates to review the district’s use of grant funding and the process for selecting vendors to provide funding for programs and services. The firm will first focus on the contracts awarded to the “one seller” that was said.
“I’m confident in solving the problems that we have and the community has,” board president Adriane Saunders said Thursday morning. “They are content with this one vendor and then probably others.”
Saunders was unaware that the Department of Education was looking at public contracts. Maro-Conroy did not respond to a request for comment.
The hiring board of Cerini & Associates held a public session Wednesday evening after the executive session, a spokesperson said.
The state awards School Improvement Grants, using federal funds, to schools and districts identified by the state as in need of improvements. The Mount Vernon district is designated a “target district” in need of extra support for student achievement growth, making certain grants.
The state Department of Education reviews applications from school districts for Improvement Grants, but does not typically review or approve “local contracts between districts and vendors” for the use of grants, according to a statement from the Department of Education.
It is unclear who the staff members are who have provided just programs and services to the Mount Vernon schools, or how many other school districts Just Inspire contracts with to provide services. Neither Bennett-Conroy nor Maher responded to these and other questions from The Journal News/lohud.
A statement from Maher’s attorney this past week said Just Inspire programs are run by certified teachers and administrators and “All funds are provided to complete specific types of contracts and/or grants.”
Just Inspira’s website was taken down earlier this week but it previously listed six Rockland County school districts among the company’s “partners.” Websites for those countries did not show any deals with Just Inspire. Maher, a veteran teacher in the South Orangetown School District, is on administrative leave, a spokeswoman for the district said.
The school board approved Stephenson’s hiring as business manager and grant, with a 13-month contract at an annual salary of $157,500, on May 4. Bennett-Conroy was named superintendent at the same meeting, after serving as assistant superintendent and in other roles. functions
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