No penalties after state probe of academy funding

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing – The Michigan Department of Education will not penalize school districts that may have inappropriately obtained taxpayer funding for students who attended a privately run construction academy not authorized as a dual enrollment program, a spokesman said Tuesday.

The state had launched a review of district agreements with the Greater Michigan Construction Academy of Midland. Documents obtained by a third-party group and reviewed by The Detroit News suggested multiple school districts may have inappropriately claimed state aid for academy students.

But department staff met Tuesday and concluded “no evidence of fraud existed and therefore no district penalties will result,” spokesman Martin Ackley said. “From this point, MDE will provide technical assistance to districts prior to the start of the school year on how to more accurately report and claim students utilizing these work-based programs moving forward.”

When asked if public funds were spent on a private program not approved by the state, Ackley said districts “often purchase private-owned curriculum programs.”

The Greater Michigan Construction Academy is run in partnership with the Associated Builders and Contractors of Michigan and, as of this spring, claimed to have dual enrollment agreements with 14 high schools. Officials recently told legislators the academy was training students at 22 locations, including Midland, Frankenmuth Schools and Merrill, St. Charles and Carrollton high schools in Saginaw County.

But the private academy is not a state-approved dual enrollment program since it is not an approved college or university, Ackley told The News earlier this week.

Questions over district agreements with the academy came to light in emails obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests by liberal advocacy group Progress Michigan.

In a June 1 exchange, Millington Community Schools Superintendent Bruce Martin told an academy official he was interested in the student training program but was informed by a district attorney it was not approved by the state as a dual-enrollment provider or as a Career Technical Education vendor, which would require the use of certified teachers.

“MDE has decided to investigate districts already working with GMCA and would possibly be billing the districts for any Foundation Allowance spent on the program since its inception in that district (could be several years’ worth!),” Martin wrote. “In short, we were warned to avoid your program at risk of significant financial penalties from MDE.”

Academy President and CEO Jimmy Greene has alleged the public document requests were an attempt to disparage GMCA “by creating an illusion that something is amiss in the partnerships.” Progress Michigan is aligned with union organizations that offer tuition-free apprenticeship training programs and oppose ABC of Michigan’s attempt to repeal the state’s prevailing wage law for construction workers.

“This must be political, because it can’t be in the best interest of kids,” Greene said.

He told The News superintendents around Michigan are seeking opportunities for students interested in skilled trades careers. Grenesaid said he was confident that Superintendent Brian Whiston would “find there’s a lot of merit to this program and find a way for it to continue.”

But critics had called the state review a red flag.

“It appears that what you have here is a private organization who is fraudulently taking state-funding for an unaccredited program while at the same time fully funding a proposal to lower the wages of the very people they are training,” Mike Jackson of the Michigan Council of Carpenters and Millwrights said earlier Tuesday, referencing the prevailing wage repeal petition drive.