Fairfax County Public Schools is repaying $1 million to the federal government after forging signatures on an application for grant money the school system used to help at-risk students prepare for college and careers.
The U.S. Department of Education wanted a multimillion-dollar fine and other penalties under the False Claims Act, but after more than eight years of discussions the Justice Department settled with the Northern Virginia school system.
The grant application was filed in 2000, netting Fairfax County Public Schools $2.7 million over five years to fund the Gear Up college readiness program at Glasgow Middle School. The school was chosen because of the large number of students qualifying for free or reduced lunch, which is the schools' indicator of poverty, and the volume of students who spoke English as a second language.
A 2003 report by the federal Department of Education described the Glasgow program, serving about 1,200 children, as a model. In a mobile computer lab with 20 wireless laptop computers, students researched careers that meshed with their interests, and then mapped out the educational paths to get there. Eighth-graders even created electronic budgets, giving themselves performance evaluations, viewing videos about work habits, and learning how to search for part-time jobs. Students participated in a Career Day, shadowed doctors and visited George Mason University.
But part of the grant application asked for proof that Glasgow had secured matching funds from private companies. In November 2000, the Washington Post reported that Fairfax had received in-kind contributions of $2.9 million from the school system and its partners.
Instead, the school employee writing the grant application lied about receiving private-sector funding and forged signatures to make the money look legitimate.
"I think at the time the grants function was not centralized," said school system spokesman John Torre, adding that the responsible employee left the school system in 2003. After an internal audit found the forgeries, Fairfax reported the problem to the Education Department in 2004 and suspended use of the $1.6 million the school system had received from the federal government. Torre was unaware how much the school system put into the program or whether the program was able to continue in any capacity.
News reports from 2000 also indicate that part of the grant went to J.E.B. Stuart High School in Falls Church, but Torre was unable to confirm whether Stuart was part of the program. Officials said all of the grant funds were used on student programs at Glasgow.
The school system afterward tightened up its grant application process, increasing training and bringing school grants under the oversight of the central office, Torre said.
A spokesman for the Education Department declined to say why it had asked for a multimillion-dollar payback or specify what other penalities it had been seeking. The Justice Department division that handled the case did not return phone calls seeking comment.