A parent questions state officials about how they will conduct an investigation that reaches out to all families participating in the Migrant Education Program at the Nyssa School District. The state met with parents in Nyssa on Thursday, May 5. (Malheur Enterprise)

NYSSA ­– State officials are investigating the Migrant Education Program at the Nyssa School District after finding “irregularities” that disqualified 19 out of a sample 100 families participating.

The program is intended to ensure children in migrant families can get an education.

The Oregon Department of Education notified school district officials in March that it was removing those 19 families from the program. The number of children represented by those families couldn’t be established as the Education Department kept a tight lid on information.

Darren Johnson, Nyssa school superintendent, told the Enterprise Thursday that state officials haven’t shared much about their findings.

He said Nyssa’s migrant program serves about 500 families, including those from Adrian and Vale school districts. The district is getting $912,0000 this year to manage the program, which funds extra teachers, summer school and pre-school.

“The program provides resources for families that move often,” Johnson said. “We provide a lot of support for families truly needing it.”

READ IT: State letter to Nyssa

“Federal civil rights laws and Supreme Court precedent require states to provide equal access to public education to all children – including those who are undocumented,” according to a U.S. Education Department report on the federal program.

“Besides the challenges related to immigration status, many undocumented youth are from low-income families and lack access to critical social services,” the report said.

The Education Department said in a March 28 letter to Johnson that a team would “urgently” interview all families engaged in the program and would “conduct a full review” of eligibility forms dating back three years.

The letter was issued by Liz Ross, director of the state Education Department’s federal systems team. She didn’t respond to an interview request.

On Thursday evening, state officials convened a community meeting at Nyssa Middle School to explain to families what was ahead. The session drew about 40 people and was conducted in Spanish. The intent, Johnson said, was to make families not legally in the U.S. comfortable participating in the state investigation.

Most of the feedback from the crowd at the town hall revolved around privacy issues and work schedules. Some voiced concern they may not be available - because of work - to take phone calls in the middle of the day. Others said they may be reluctant to give information to a stranger over the phone. 

Marc Siegel, Education Department communications director, said in an email on Thursday that the investigation “is expected to take up to three months.”

He initially wouldn’t address other questions, telling the Enterprise, “I’ve sent all the information available.”

Siegel wouldn’t make agency officials available and subsequently released Ross’s letter only after Johnson had provided it to the Enterprise.

The communications staff of Gov. Kate Brown, who also functions as state school superintendent, didn’t respond to written questions about her knowledge of the Nyssa situation or steps she was taking to safeguard public money.

The questionable actions in Nyssa have been under investigation since last July.

According to the Education Department letter, someone reported “a concern regarding irregularities” in forms used to enroll in the program, called certificates of eligibility.

Ross wrote that the state “began its own investigative process” and reviewed a sampling of records for 100 families.

That review determined the 19 families weren’t eligible, but the letter provided no details. The letter said 28 eligibility certificates contained “irregularities and inaccuracies.”

“ODE will be contacting the 19 affected families to notify them of their ineligibility,” Ross wrote. “Removing eligibility may be a concerning matter to these families.”

She said that the U.S. Department of Education was notified of the findings. Federal funding is used for the program.

“We feel like we’ve been following all the laws and regulations,” Johnson said. “We are cooperating.”

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