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Federal funds for Dual Language Immersion program 'mismanaged,' audit says

FILE— Michelle Foote sings a song with her Spanish-immersion kindergarten class at Riverside Elementary School in West Jordan. Her class is one of many in Utah\'s new experiment.
FILE— Michelle Foote sings a song with her Spanish-immersion kindergarten class at Riverside Elementary School in West Jordan. Her class is one of many in Utah\'s new experiment.
Keith Johnson, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Federal funds for the state's Dual Language Immersion program, among them grants awarded by the National Security Agency, were "mismanaged" by the Utah State Board of Education, a new state audit says.

The review, conducted by the Office of the State Auditor and released Monday, said the State School Board failed to monitor program activities, school staff "were improperly paid with federal program funds," and federal funds were used for purposes that were not allowed.

The Dual Language Immersion program was created by the Utah Legislature in 2009. The program is intended to help students learn academic content while acquiring another language. For instance, students receive math, science and social studies instruction in target languages such as English, Spanish, Chinese, French, Portuguese, German or Russian.

In addition to state appropriations, the Utah State Board of Education receives federal grants to expand the program to offer more languages. The state board receives federal grants from the Department of Defense's Language Flagship sub-awarded by BYU and a number of STARTALK grants awarded by the NSA.

Specifically, the audit found that 57 percent of state expenditures between July 2013 and January 2017 from a federal STARTALK grant were "unallowable," according to the audit.

Grant money was used to pay for "alcohol, parking fines, lift tickets, office decorations and other unnecessary expenditures," the audit states. While the total amount of the questionable costs is not specified, it was part of a total of $50,648 of "known questioned costs," according to the audit.

STARTALK grants are awarded by the NSA for several languages deemed of "critical need," according to the website of the University of Maryland's National Foreign Language Center.

"STARTALK’s mission is to increase the number of U.S. citizens learning, speaking and teaching critical need foreign languages. STARTALK offers students (K-16) and teachers of these languages creative and engaging summer experiences that strive to exemplify best practices in language education and in language teacher development," the center's website states.

In a written response to the audit, Scott Jones, deputy superintendent of operations, wrote that the "board concurs with the questioned costs reported for the (Language Flagship) grant," noting that "the amount agrees to the board's internal review."

"We would also like to perform a reconciliation between the questioned costs identified by this report for the STARTALK grant to the amount actually drawn from the grant to determine if we concur with the amount reported."

Overall, the audit found a lack of proper oversight of the program, a lack of accountability on the part of the State School Board and local education authorities who receive funding, and inadequate monitoring of program activities.

Jones wrote that the state board "agrees that organizational setup of this program is not ideal and does not promote a clear delineation between responsibilities of the state and those of the local education agencies. Similar state and federal grant programs currently managed by the (Utah State Board of Education) are not organized or managed in the same fashion as the Dual Language Immersion program."

"At the time of the organization of this program with state dollars, it was a pilot, and it does not appear that when federal funds were added to program that they were classified as such," Jones continued. "Additional funds increased the size of the program, and adequate funds were not retained at the state level to properly administer the program."

The state auditor's office has recommended that the State School Board require that local education authorities maintain and provide to the state education officials "appropriate supporting documentation for grant expenditures and reimbursement requests," and that reimbursements be granted only after "thorough review of supporting documentation."

Jones, in the letter outlining the agency's response, wrote that the staff is developing contracts, or memoranda of understanding, with each public school authority that offers the Dual Language Immersion program.

The documents will outline the responsibilities of the state, program directors and local education authorities.

"Allowable costs and activities will be clearly outlined for all participating (local education authorities)," the letter states.