no one saw any signs

Fake special ed vendors stole $1.5 million from city, probe finds

Two men used shell companies and forged signatures to charge the Department of Education for sign language services that students didn’t need, an investigation found. The fraud ran for more than two school years and cost the city at least $1.5 million.

The brazen scheme involved claiming payment for services to students who were not enrolled in city schools and, in some cases, offered as proof that services had been provided the forged signatures of people who were retired or even deceased. In one instance, the city paid more than $100,000 over an eight-month period for a student who had left the school system a decade earlier. In another, the city handed out $187,200 in payments that were authorized by someone who had died “several years ago.”

Today, authorities arrested one of the men involved, Nelson Ruiz, while his collaborator, William Cruz, remains at large, said a spokeswoman for the Special Commissioner of Investigation, which conducted the probe.

Special education costs have skyrocketed in recent years and though the sign language fraud doesn’t begin to explain the amount of money that pays for special education servies, it suggests that the ways outside providers  are paid is highly-vulnerable to fraud.

Last summer, the education department created a unit specifically to root out fraud in special education spending and officials said today that it was the work of this unit that eventually prompted the investigation.

Investigators opened the case in February after a department official questioned the authenticity of billing documents that had been submitted by a sign language company called Bilingual Words in Motion.

Eventually, investigators found that a total of five companies, all owned by either Ruiz or Cruz, were swindling the department of payments for sign language services. The companies used the names of 10 students and listed them on forged disability forms to secure payments for services that not only weren’t being provided, but weren’t even needed by the students.

The fraud was apparently able to take place because of shortcomings in the office of Non-Public Schools Payables, which pays independent vendors to provide services to students with disabilities that the department can’t otherwise offer.

Before it authorizes payments, the office first reviews a document — called a ‘related service authorization form — that gives permission to parents to obtain services from an approved independent vendor. These forms included signatures from both parents and education department employees, which Ruiz and Cruz were forging.

Investigators found many of these forms were also outdated, contained wrong addresses, and were issued out of the wrong school district. But when office employees reviewed them, they didn’t pick up on the discrepancies. And  the office also doesn’t have access to a student’s individualized education plan, so they were unable to verify if the student should have been receiving the outside services.

If they had been able to, they would have found some stark discrepancies. Of the ten students detailed in the investigation, most of them didn’t need sign language instruction from an outside vendor. Some didn’t have hearing disabilities at all and three of them were no longer part of the city school system.

Cruz and Ruiz were paid a total of $1,524,160 during the 2010-2011 and 2011-2012 school years, and while the scope of the investigation only went back to 2010, the pair’s theft could have been closer to $4 million. The investigators’ report says that some of the same companies were paid an additional $2.3 million by the Department of Education prior to the 2010-2011 school year.

Ruiz and Cruz technically owned all five of the companies between them, but when investigators began checking up on the companies, there was little evidence that any business was being conducted. None of the companies had offices and their addresses usually linked back to standalone mailboxes. An address for one of the companies, Related Services Solutions, matched Ruiz’s residence in Pennsylvania.

Investigators also looked into the companies’ bank records and found none of them did any business outside of the combined $1.5 million that the city was paying to them.

City officials downplayed the findings from the investigation and said that the education department had already put in place controls to improve how vendors are vetted and how its invoice system is monitors. In a statement, Chancellor Dennis Walcott lauded education department employees who worked to uncover the fraud.

“I want to thank the employees who have been working so diligently over the last year to root out fraud and ensure our neediest students get the services they deserve,” Walcott said. “We will not  allow corrupt businesses to defraud our system and prey on our children.”

The investigation is ongoing and there are still many unanswered questions about how Ruiz and Cruz could had carried out their fraud.

For instance, Cruz apparently used an alias — Bill Chacon — to serve as a special education advocate in impartial hearings. Cruz attended hearings for five of the students who are listed in the report, but it’s unclear how they found the students to claim payments for. It’s even  some of those students did not have any disability. Principals of some of the students who had hearing disabilities told investigators that their services were provided in the school.

The investigation has been handed over to Preet Bharara, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York.

Ruiz and Cruz- SCI Report 8 17 12 (1)

defensor escolar

Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.