The handling of federal grant money by the Mount Vernon school district and its superintendent is the focus of a federal investigation.
The Mount Vernon school board confirmed Friday morning that the US Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of New York is seeking records from the district and Superintendent Waveline Bennett-Conroy “associated with grants that the federal government previously issued to the district.”
The US Attorney’s Office served a “civil investigative demand” on the district and Bennett-Conroy, a statement from the board said. A civil investigative demand, like a subpoena, allows federal agencies to obtain documents and other records for an investigation.
The district did not immediately respond to further questions.
A spokesperson for the US Attorney’s Office in Albany declined comment.
Although Mount Vernon is in the Southern District of New York, prosecutors in the Northern District could have jurisdiction based on the federal grants going through the Albany-based state Education Department.
The board had looked into grants
In October, Bennett-Conroy and the school board announced that it would hire an outside investigator to look at the district’s grant-giving process. A Mount Vernon blogger, Chris McDonough, had questioned the school district’s awarding of $8.5 million in grants since 2016 to a single agency, West Nyack-based Just Inspire. Bennett-Conroy and the board acted after The Journal News/lohud asked extensive questions about the grants and the district’s hiring of Bennett-Conroy’s son, Marlon Stephenson, on a 13-month contract as director of business and grants.
Around 2016, Stephenson worked at the same company as Susan Maher, who would start Just Inspire soon after.
The school board’s statement said the board supports the civil investigation and “will fully cooperate with the US Attorney’s Office.”
Bennett-Conroy could not be reached for comment.
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Bennett-Conroy became superintendent last July 1 after working in the district for two decades as a teacher and administrator.
She had been interim superintendent since May, when then-schools chief Kenneth Hamilton went on medical leave. He had already been named the next Edgemont superintendent as of July 1.
In November, the school board hired a Long Island-based accounting firm to conduct what it called an “independent comprehensive audit” of the district’s grant program.
“That process is ongoing and has yet to be completed,” the board’s statement said. “We look forward to the results, which will be shared with our community and all outside agencies as appropriate.”
The state’s education department had gotten involved
Around the same time, the state Education Department said it had requested documents from the Mount Vernon district about its awarding of federal grants to Just Inspire. The state does not normally review contracts between districts and vendors for the use of federal School Improvement Grants, which go to schools and districts identified as needing to improve student outcomes.
The Education Department did not immediately respond Friday to a request for comment.
The school district gave about 50 grants to Just Inspire over seven years for services as wide as data management, grant writing and administration, a STEAM camp, program evaluations, parent classes, character education, and professional development.
Jesse Van Lew, an anti-corruption activist in Mount Vernon who held a press conference in October asking for a federal investigation of the grants, said federal involvement is long overdue.
“I think this is the tip of the iceberg, and it has to stop,” he said. “Am I happy? No. But this investigation has to happen. They’re taking from the kids. These grants were to help kids.”
Just Inspire’s website was taken down in November. It had listed six Rockland County school districts among the company’s “partners,” but those districts did not have contracts with Just Inspire. Maher is a teacher in the South Orangetown district, one of those who have been listed as a partner. She went on administrative leave around the same time Just Inspire’s website went dark.
Maher and Stephenson were both listed as employees of another company, Wellcore, in 2016, before Maher started Just Inspire.
A school district spokesperson recently said Stephenson no longer worked for the school district.
A lawyer for Maher, in a November statement to The Journal News/lohud, said Just Inspire’s programs are carried out by certified educators and comply with requirements for procuring education grants. “All funding that was provided to carry out specific contractual programs and/or grants has been completed.”