Ex-DPS official gets prison term for tutoring fraud

Robert Snell
The Detroit News

Detroit — A former Detroit Public Schools administrator was sentenced Friday to 18 months in federal prison for her role in a nearly $1.3 million scheme that cheated students at the cash-strapped school district.

Prosecutors portrayed Carolyn Starkey-Darden, 71, as a greedy thief who exploited a broken Detroit public education system by pocketing money for tutorial services children never received. Prosecutors wanted U.S. District Judge Stephen Murphy to sentence her to 24 months in prison while defense lawyers wanted her sentenced to a halfway house.

Starkey-Darden will go to a halfway house for four months, but only after serving 18 months in prison.

She was charged in May 2016, two months after prosecutors dismantled a bribery scheme involving 12 current or former DPS educators and a school vendor —12 pleaded guilty and one former principal was convicted following a trial in December.

Prosecutors allege the Detroit resident obtained at least $1.275 million from DPS through a scheme in which she submitted fraudulent invoices for payment for tutorial services between 2005 and 2012. The services, however, were never provided to DPS students who attended schools targeted for improvement on federal progress goals.

“The only explanation for her presence before this court is that age old vice, pure and simple, greed,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Dawn Ison wrote in a court filing. “(Starkey-Darden’s) crime compounded the district’s failure to improve schools, graduation rates and otherwise provide the quality education that the schoolchildren of Detroit so desperately deserve.”

The sentencing comes nine months after Starkey-Darden pleaded guilty to federal program theft, a 10-year felony.

Starkey-Darden is a dedicated educator who donated thousands of dollars to the community — including $10,000 for a handicap-accessible van for fellow churchgoers — and accepted responsibility for the crime, her lawyer said.

Starkey-Darden did provide some tutorial services, defense lawyer Gerald Evelyn wrote in a court filing.

“She has shown herself to be a person who has gone above and beyond the call of duty to provide assistance to students,” Evelyn wrote.

Prosecutors dismissed her acts of charity.

“These, too, were potentially funded by the money (Starkey-Darden) received from DPS for work she didn’t do,” Ison wrote. “(Starkey-Darden’s) charitable acts are not extraordinary…”

The companies run by Starkey-Darden included MI Learning Unlimited, Grants-N-Such, Dara Darden Educational Consultant, Achieving 180, and Learning Unlimited Companies.

Starkey-Darden retired from DPS on Oct. 31, 2005. She was the former director of Title 1 compliance at DPS, a job that involved the distribution of federal funds to local school districts.

Starkey-Darden filed articles of organization for one of the companies on July 20, 2005 — before her retirement. She filed articles of organization for another company Nov. 2, 2005, two days after her retirement. Her husband entered into a contract with DPS for tutoring services on Nov. 1 of that year.

In June 2014, federal prosecutors filed a civil action against multiple bank accounts of Starkey-Darden and her husband after the FBI launched an investigation in 2011 into the couple and three of their businesses.

The companies, Grants-N-Such, MI Learning Unlimited and the Learning Unlimited Companies, were formed to provide after-school tutoring to students who attended schools targeted for improvement on federal progress goals.

In the 39-page civil complaint filed in U.S. District Court, federal prosecutors allege Starkey-Darden ordered the falsification of documents, including inputting false pre-test scores, creating fake individualized learning plans for students, forging parental signatures on monthly attendance records and submitting inflated invoices for unperformed services.

Student progress reports were doctored, FBI agents allege, and Starkey-Darden’s company billed for students who weren’t in class, according to the complaint.

Investigators said Starkey-Darden created her own proxy form for parent signatures, which removed parents from overseeing their children’s attendance, and instructed employees to forge parent signatures of tutored students.

Agents determined that from June 22, 2006, through Oct. 19, 2012, the three companies received $6.17 million in federally subsidized program money.

Agents allege a general rule in the scheme was to give each potential student a fabricated pre-test score that was three to five grades lower than the student’s actual grade that school year.

During the Starkey-Darden investigation, agents seized $980,855.

Jennifer Chambers contributed.

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