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Montgomery superintendent pitches reimbursing Rock Terrace students

Monday - 1/13/2014, 4:53pm  ET

WASHINGTON - Montgomery County's schools superintendent wants to reimburse Rock Terrace students for money that was taken from some students' individual funds and banking accounts.

Superintendent Joshua Starr is expected to present his plan to repay Rock Terrace students who took part in work-study programs to the county board of education Tuesday.

What happened at Rock Terrace, a school for students with physical and cognitive disabilities, is still being sorted out. But according to Starr and parents, monies that were put into accounts set up at a local credit union for the students were mishandled. The record-keeping for the funds was so bad that Starr writes in a memo to the board, "the lack of clear internal systems for notification and management contributed to confusion about the funds on the part of parents as well as some staff."

Saying the school system needs to rebuild trust, Starr wants to repay students involved in the work programs. Some students would be paid "with an amount of money equal to that indicated on W-2 statements generated by the payroll system beginning with calendar year 2006, the earliest year for which MCPS has copies of W-2 forms." Other students would receive a flat $200.

"I believe it is important to make a good faith effort to acknowledge the deficiencies in the way these programs were run and to rebuild the trust of this community," Starr writes in the memo.

Starr's memo also says that the monies the students received should not be counted as taxable income, but part of an education training program. The memo says the funds should be considered a gift, not a wage paid for work performed - a key issue for parents who were concerned their children's disability benefits could be lost or reduced because of the income.

Lyda Astrove, a member of the Parent's Coalition, says part of the confusion stems from the fact that while the accounts had the students' names on them, the address on the accounts was 390 Martins Lane, Rockville, Md., the school's address.

As a result, parents never received monthly bank statements regarding the accounts.

One parent, who shared her daughter's story last June, found out about the account when her daughter received a W-2 form. As the mother investigated, she learned several withdrawals had been made from her daughter's credit union account.

"Eighty-eight dollars here, $200 there, and I'm like, well, where's the money? Because she wasn't bringing it home," the parent told WTOP at the time.

The parent was most concerned that her daughter's disability benefits would be endangered by the income.

A final decision decision may not come immediately from the board.

In the meantime, Montgomery County's Office of the State's Attorney is investigating to determine if any crime was committed. At this point, school officials and some sources close to school operations say it appears the money withdrawn from student accounts was funneled back into school related programming, but prosecutors cannot discuss what their investigation shows so far.

However Starr's memo confirms that theory.

"All information available to date indicates that funds withdrawn from the individual student accounts and from the sub-account in the (school's independent activity fund) were used for community resource activities and school programs and activities," his memo to the board states.

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WTOP's Kate Ryan contributed to this report. Follow @kateryanWTOP and @WTOP on Twitter.

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