Polk County Superintendent Sherrie B. Nickell appealed a state audit that found one school employee in Lakeland was paid with stimulus money even though he did not meet the federal educational requirements. (Photo courtesy of The Ledger.)

By Mc Nelly Torres
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting

The dispute involved one employee and just $4,573.

But for months, even after state education officials ruled the money had been misspent, Polk County Public Schools refused to refund the federal education dollars.

The disagreement, over whether the school district had violated rules governing how federal education money should be spent, escalated over a six-month period amid e-mails and letters between district officials and the Florida Department of Education.

The $4,573 in question was intended to benefit Title I schools, which educate primarily low-income, low-performing students.

Rhonda Ashley, the director of federal programs for the district, maintained the employee at the center of the dispute was not paid with Title I funds.

“It’s an odd situation,” Ashley said.

Indeed, the situation is odd, and it has since been resolved. But the private, months-long dispute over such a small amount of money illustrates how confused local school districts in Florida have been about federal regulations governing education funds and the reporting requirements that came with the 2009 economic stimulus bill.

Florida school districts, including Polk’s, identified new Title I schools to obtain additional stimulus funding from the federal government. These newly identified Title I schools had to meet certain federal requirements, such as employing highly qualified staff.

But the U.S. Department of Education issued a waiver to Polk County Public Schools and 21 other Florida school districts that allowed administrators to ignore one of the federal requirements — that all instructional aides, known as paraprofessionals, have earned at least 60 college credits and demonstrate knowledge of reading, writing and math.

The waiver gave most school districts one year — some received two years — to meet the federal requirements. Yet, despite the waiver, all support staff considered unqualified under federal regulations had to be paid with local or state funds, not with federal money.

That requirement is at the center of the $4,573 dispute in Polk County. A state audit in January found that one school employee in Polk County was paid with stimulus money even though he did not meet the federal educational requirements to be a paraprofessional.

The employee, Armando Vega-Fontanez, a paraprofessional needed for his Spanish-speaking skills, spent just three weeks on the payroll at Southwest Middle School in Lakeland before leaving for military duty.

Unclear on whether the federal regulations applied to Vega-Fontanez, administrators for Polk County Public Schools appealed the state order to refund the federal money.

The state refused to relent, and ordered Polk County Public Schools to refund the salary and benefits for Vega-Fontanez.

“The consequence for this action was to restore the Title I program equal to the amount of the salary and related benefits of the employee, regardless of how the individual was paid,” Tom Butler, a spokesperson with Florida Department of Education, told the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting.

But Polk County Public Schools didn’t give up so easily, even as administrators conceded they weren’t in full compliance with federal regulations.

“We had identified new Title I schools because of the stimulus funding and with that usually come paraprofessionals who are not highly qualified,” Ashley said.

Following the unsuccessful appeal, Superintendent Sherrie B. Nickell wrote a Feb. 25 letter to state officials: “Polk was in compliance in every instance, with the exception of one paraprofessional.”

That letter sparked more than a dozen of e-mail messages and several letters between Polk County and state education officials — all over just $4,573.

Finally, in July, Polk County Public Schools quietly refunded the money.

Merissa Green, an education reporter for The Ledger, contributed to this story.