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After a federal audit, Mass. schools may have to return some Hurricane Maria money

A student going to class in Holyoke High School, which accepted students displaced by Hurricane Maria. (Jill Kaufman/NEPM)
A student going to class in Holyoke High School, which accepted students displaced by Hurricane Maria. (Jill Kaufman/NEPM)

After natural disasters in 2017 hit Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, the U.S. government provided emergency aid to states to educate evacuees.

Thousands of displaced students came to Massachusetts after Hurricane Maria, and the state received $15.5 million dollars for 69 districts.

About a third of the money went to Springfield and Worcester, which were singled out in a recent federal audit.

The audit, by the U.S. Department of Education Office of Inspector General, determined that the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) did not ensure that displaced student count data provided to the federal education department were accurate and complete.

The audit also determined that DESE did not ensure districts appropriately accounted for emergency aid funds.

In response to the audit, DESE officials did not state whether they agreed or disagreed with the findings and recommendations. However, according to the audit, state education officials stated they will work with Springfield and Worcester to resolve issues noted in the audit.

A spokesperson for DESE said the department oversaw the funds and also provided assistance to districts.

"After this funding was distributed, DESE monitored its allocation and provided the districts with technical assistance to support federal guidance governing its expenditure," Colleen Quinn said in an email. "The Department will continue to work collaboratively with school districts and the U.S. Department of Education to resolve any outstanding issues and ensure continued compliance.”

What's in question is about $2 million. The audit said federal officials want proof the funds were spent correctly or the money returned.

“Our understanding is that the federal audit is of DESE’s reporting process and the data DESE submitted on behalf of Springfield Public Schools," Superintendent of Springfield Public Schools Daniel Warwick said in a statement. "Springfield Public Schools remained in close contact with DESE during the reporting process, seeking clarity and confirmation of the processes set in place during this event."

Warwick noted the district accepted more than 1,300 displaced students, requiring "unprecedented and unforeseen finances, processes, and protocols."

"Admittedly, these were unchartered territories for the state and for the districts," he said. "We stand proud of our efforts to educate, accommodate and support the largest influx of displaced students in the state.”

Worcester school officials did not reply to a request for comment.

This story is part of the New England News Collaborative. It was originally published by New England Public Media.

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