January 11, 2016; KELO-TV (Sioux Falls, SD)

The federal, state, and media investigations into the use of $62 million in federal and local funds in South Dakota’s GEAR UP program continue four months after the murder-suicide of the Westerhuis family in Platte, South Dakota, propelled the story into public attention.

Both the U.S. Department of Education and the South Dakota Department of Education informed investigators and the media that no copies existed of South Dakota’s first GEAR UP grant application, covering the years 2005–2011 and $14 million in total services. The explanation was that all copies were destroyed or deleted in accordance with standard records retention and destruction policies. In short, the documents were too old to be retained.

However, a copy was retained by an editor of the grant application who worked for a nonprofit collaborating with South Dakota on GEAR UP. The application was sent—unsolicited—to NPQ and shared with KELO-TV in response to an e-mail discussion on EVALTALK, the discussion list of the American Evaluation Association (AEA). The discussion subject was “Evaluator’s Nightmare” because it centered on what happens when an external evaluator becomes involved in a federal grant under investigation.

The application adds both understanding and additional frustration to a complex story. The 2005 application’s program design and budget were markedly different from the design and budget contained in South Dakota’s final grant report to the U.S. Education Department in 2011. This suggests that there were extensive changes negotiated between the state and federal officials as early as 2005. The state’s key nonprofit partner, responsible for managing the program and performing all services under the grant, was changed. GEAR UP’s scholarship requirement was inadequately budgeted in the original application; by the time of the final grant report, there were no scholarships awarded at all, indicating South Dakota’s success in receiving a waiver from the scholarship requirement post-application. Disturbingly, while the GEAR UP program reported serving several thousand low-income, predominantly Native American students prepare for success in postsecondary education, not a single student receiving special education services was served during the 2005–2011 period. We now know the original grant application stressed equitable participation in program services and even documented the percentage of special education students in each of the two dozen schools to be served.

Grant application preparation is a difficult and sometimes frustrating exercise. It’s tempting to cut corners, compromise, and improvise when under deadline pressure. Some on your team may counsel expedience over diligence and integrity because, after all, our organization cares and is trying to do the right thing for those we serve. When you hear words like these, imagine one of your organization’s grant applications being scrutinized by the media looking for a tantalizing story or by prosecutors determining whether criminal conduct has occurred. Even though it almost never happens, it can happen. It’s a sobering thought that is no doubt occurring to many in South Dakota education as investigations continue.—Michael Wyland