Gear Up closes
Was program a target of the State?
By Brandon Ecoffey
LCT Editor RAPID CITY—One of the largest Native American college prep programs in the country was abruptly shut down late last month after officials from the state of South Dakota informed Mid Central Education Cooperative that it had “failed to successfully implement the program and has failed to comply with the terms of the grant award.” The grant referred to was for this upcoming year’s $4.3 million Gear Up Program that was designed to improve graduation rates of Native American Students. Gear Up has seen millions tens cycled through the program as it reached out to schools across the state in an attempt to increase the graduation rates of Native American students. The Gear Up contract this worked in a way where the federal government provided funding to the state Department of Education. The state DOE then contracted with the Mid Central Education Cooperative, operated out of Platte, SD. MDCE then would hire contractors to carry out the requirements of the Gear Up grant. Those contractors included educators, Mentors, Consultants, and education professionals. On the afternoon of September 21, 2015, Gear Up Program Coordinator and member of the State’s Education committee Stacy Phelps was holding a meeting with his small staff when his phone rang. Phelps had just recently been informed that his business partner and administrator of the state’s Gear Up program Scott Westerhuis had possibly killed his wife and kids just prior to setting his home on fire and turning the gun on himself. The voice on the phone informed Phelps that the South Dakota Department of Education had decided to not renew the contract for Gear Up with Westerhuis and his company Mid Central Education Cooperative. Just hours before the apparent murder suicide Westerhuis had been informed by the state that the Gear Up grant would not be renewed. Phelps, along with his small staff, were taken back and had no idea that the grant was going to be pulled as they had just begun unpacking the 6500 student planners that were equipped with Lakota, Nakota, and Dakota cultural elements that were used in the program. The planners included success stories of past Gear Up participants who went on to college and also a timeline to help guide Native students in their journey towards college and served as a reminder of the program’s ultimate goals.
One of the largest Native American college prep programs in the country was abruptly shut down after officials from the state of South Dakota informed Mid Central Education Cooperative that it had “failed to successfully implement the program and has failed to comply with the terms of the grant award.” Photo from Facebook
Gear Up is designed to increase graduation rates and college admittance amongst Native American and poor students across the state and had seemingly been a success to Native communities who allowed the program in to their schools and who also trusted the program to watch their children during a several week long college prep program hosted in Rapid City on the campus of the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology. Across the state Gear Up existed in 39 reservation schools and aimed to have over 6000 participants statewide. At the time of the closure the program had fallen short of that number and had around 4500 students enrolled in the program. Gear Up also featured a summer program that was operated by Stacey Phelps, a member of the Oglala Lakota Nation and a graduate of the South Dakota School of Mines. The summer program that was directly operated by Phelps had an astonishing success rate amongst students who made through all four years of the summer program having seen 90% of those students graduate from high school and 87% of those students make it through their first year of college. Numbers like these have left employees, participants and Native communities across the state scratching their heads and wondering why the state opted to non-renew the grant. Although the program did fall short of some stated goals of the grant, numbers were trending upward and the program was finding success in improving access to education for Native students. “There is no program with those kinds of success rates amongst poverty stricken and Native American students,” said Darla Drew, a former employee of Gear Up who worked as a media and public relations coordinator for the program. Drew, who is a non-Native person, said the state had nit-picked the program since its inception. “I’m not sure if the state didn’t like that a Native man was handling all that money or if people at the level want to divert those funds but they sure seemed like they were looking for something, anything, but there was nothing to find,” said Drew. “For all of us involved in this it was long days and lots of travel and you had to make a commitment from the heart and you couldn’t do this if you didn’t believe in it. We did this because of Stacey Phelps. He worked harder than I did and he worked longer than I did and it isn’t often that you see the boss work harder and longer than their employees.” According to Drew, Phelps -- who was a business partner of Westerhuis -- brought with him a unique approach to solving the problems involving the education of Native students across the state. “Stacey was an engineer who brought that skill set to the problem of Indian Education. He looked at it as a problem that needed to be solved and he figured out a way to do it,” said Drew. In the letter informing Mid Central Education Cooperative that the contract would not be renewed South Dakota Secretary of Education Melody Schopp listed the state’s eight reasons for the contract being terminated. Schopp stated the MICEC had displayed a “Lack of supporting documentation and improper documentation for match, resulting in a significant shortfall in match…Lack of fiscal capacity including lack of fiscal control and improper governmental accounting procedures…Lack of knowledge of Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP) or failure to implement GAAP procedures…Lack of internal controls…Conflict of interest and failure to disclose related parties…Lack of project oversight...Lack of oversight on school sub-grants; and Lack of documentation for grant activities under OMB A-87.” Drew stated that allegations by the state that the program did not fully document its action is partly the result of the state choosing to replace Gear Up’s grant monitor. “When we first started we had Linda Kuhn overseeing the grant and she was one of the people who taught the federal workshops on how to stay in compliance," Drew said. "The state chose to replace her with the Pierre group for whatever reason and this is where we have ended up." Some peculiarities seem to exist surrounding the reasons that Sec. Schopp has listed for the contract not being renewed as a 2014 Fiscal Year Audits seem to contradict Shopp’s allegations. In early August of 2015, the SD Government Operations and Audit Committee and the SD Dept of Education reviewed the audits of MCEC for FY 2014 and required that MCEC respond to questions from the committees. MCEC would answer these questions on September 10 when Scott Westerhuis was quoted as saying: “The federal auditors have reviewed the findings from the Legislative Audit of Gear Up and the results are favorable." The response from Westerhuis seemingly implied that things were copacetic with the Gear Up grant. However, Westerhuis, would allegedly carry out the murder suicide just over a week later after being informed that the state would be ending the grant. A 2014 Legislative Audit conducted by Schoenfish & Company Inc looked over the activities of MCEC. The Audit contains language that seemingly indicates that GEAR Up had not committed the violations alleged by the state. “As part of obtaining reasonable assurance whether MCEC financial statements are free of material misstatement, we performed tests of its compliance with provisions of laws, regulations, contracts and grant agreements, noncompliance with which could have a direct and material impact on financial statement amounts … The results of our tests disclosed no instance of noncompliance or other matters that are required to be reported under Government Auditing Standards,” stated the audit. Additionally the same audit stated that MCEC was compliant with federal regulations for internal control and compliance, “In our opinion MCEC complied, in all material respects, with the types of compliance requirements … that could have a direct and material effect on each of its major federal programs for the year ended June 30, 2014. and that “In our opinion MCEC complied, in all material respects, with the types of compliance requirements … that could have a direct and material effect on each of its major federal programs for the year ended June 30, 2014.”The Audit did chastise the state DOE for failing to have proper controls set up within its own system and suggested a variety of changes that the state should make. State officials have for the most part remained tight lipped about the situation but employees of Gear Up have stepped up to defend Phelps. “There have been accusations that there was a conflict of interest regarding Stacey Phelps because of his position on the state board but he has been invested inn this program for more than a decade,” said Alice Phelps, who was an employee of MCEC and who is also married to Stacey Phelps’ brother. “This program was powerful and it was working,” (Contact Brandon Ecoffey at firstname.lastname@example.org) Find the award-winning Lakota Country Times on the Internet, Facebook and Twitter.
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