The United States Department of Justice (DOJ) has accused Cincinnati Public Schools (CPS) of misusing federal grant money and leaving students at risk. According to an article in the Cincinnati Enquirer, the DOJ report relates to a $5 million school safety grant that CPS received from the federal government in 2015. The grant was intended to support the “Walking School Bus” program, a CPS initiative through which adults would be hired to walk students to school in parts of the city that lacked bus service.
Per the DOJ report, the first step CPS took with federal grant money was to hire an outside contractor to run the program. The mistake, DOJ says, was that CPS did not maintain oversight of that contractor or the program after that point. This lack of oversight led the contractor, Carmen Burks, to give herself a $98,000 raise, up from the $246,000 salary that the Program Manager position was allocated. She also purchased tablets and smart TVs for the program and gave raises to top-level employees.
The government suspended the school safety grant in 2016. At that point, CPS had only spent about $1.4 million of the $5 million total. The rest of the money automatically goes back to the government. Whether the government will reimburse CPS for the money already spent remains to be seen. The district has so far been reimbursed about $760,000 from the grant, but the Cincinnati Enquirer article notes that CPS might be expected to pay some of that back—especially considering the DOJ report.
The DOJ claims that CPS, through its lack of program oversight, allowed multiple issues to fester within the Walking School Bus program. The first and most severe of these issues was the absence of a proper background check protocol.
Of the 63 Walking School Bus employees, CPS only had background checks on file for 57 of them. 18 of those 57 had criminal histories of some sort. Employees within the program had convictions for offenses ranging from domestic violence to conspiracy to distributing firearms. One employee had been convicted of trafficking drugs within 1,000 feet of a school building. Another had a conviction for child endangerment.
The DOJ report identified other issues, too. The Walking School Bus program evidently had no protocol for students, staff members, or parents to communicate issues or incidents. The DOJ discovered a report of one employee threatening to discipline a child, and another report of an employee driving a child to school without parental consent. CPS did nothing to investigate these situations or reprimand the employees involved. The DOJ report noted that CPS had no meaningful standards or documentation policies for staff training or program monitoring.
It isn’t clear at this point which consequences, if any, CPS will face based on the DOJ report. The most likely outcome is that the district will have to repay some or all of the money obtained through the grant. As for the Walking School Bus program, CPS appears to have removed pages and documents about the program from its official website.