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Collegiate Prep Academy ninth-graders work with a math tutor in 2012.

Collegiate Prep Academy ninth-graders work with a math tutor in 2012.

AmeriCorps ‘volunteers’ in Denver schools were district employees, investigation finds

The AmeriCorps program in Denver Public Schools has been terminated after an investigation found the district broke rules by recruiting its own employees to serve as volunteers, according to a report released Wednesday.

The Colorado agency that oversees some AmeriCorps programs here, Serve Colorado, is requiring the district pay back $200,000 in federal money it received to administer the program in the 2017-18 school year. The district department that got the grant is barred from reapplying.

In addition, Serve Colorado determined that the more than 400 AmeriCorps members working in Denver Public Schools this past year will not be eligible for a key AmeriCorps perk: up to $5,920 each, depending on hours of service, to pay for college courses or pay back student loans. District officials have said they will pick up that cost, which they estimate at between $1 million and $1.8 million.

The district is not disputing the report’s findings. In a statement, officials said that in light of them, Denver Public Schools “has taken steps to review and improve its procedures and processes related to grants administration,” including by consulting outside experts.

AmeriCorps is a federal service program that offers stipends and other incentives, such as loan forgiveness, to Americans to volunteer with nonprofits, public agencies, or other organizations on projects such as helping communities recover from national disasters or mentoring youth.

The report found Denver Public Schools violated federal regulations by recruiting its own paraprofessionals, who were already on its payroll, to join AmeriCorps on top of their regular jobs. Their duties didn’t change, but they did get access to the “education award” AmeriCorps offers to volunteers who successfully complete their service. District officials said the paraprofessionals would have been eligible for $2,907 in tuition reimbursement because they only work part-time.

“The standard practice in recruiting and placing AmeriCorps members for DPS is working from a roster of existing … paraprofessionals,” the report says. When Serve Colorado officials interviewed 16 of them as part of an investigation, “most did not seems to have a good grasp of how AmeriCorps service fits into their role,” the report says.

The district also recruited teaching residents and members of its Math and Literacy Fellows program to be AmeriCorps volunteers in violation of the rules, the report says. Teaching residents are students studying to become teachers. In addition to taking classes, they get practical experience teaching part-time in classrooms under the mentorship of veteran teachers. Math and Literacy Fellows are tutors who work with small groups of struggling students.

Paraprofessionals are teacher’s aides. Several told investigators they regularly performed duties outside the scope of their official roles. In addition to lunch and recess duty, some said they taught entire classes on their own when the teacher was out, the report says. That’s a violation of AmeriCorps regulations that say volunteers cannot displace employees.

The report also notes that policies and procedures for training AmeriCorps members to work in Denver Public Schools were “sparse,” and that it was unclear to investigators “who was responsible for what with respect to oversight of AmeriCorps members.”

Denver Public Schools had 475 AmeriCorps members in 2017-18, according to the district.

Mark Ferrandino, the district’s chief financial officer, said the $1 million to $1.8 million to pay for the “education awards” those members would have received through AmeriCorps will come out of the district’s general fund. The financial impact on the district’s billion-dollar budget is expected to be spread out over seven years, which is how long AmeriCorps members have after their service to request reimbursement for their educational costs, Ferrandino said.

“This is going to some of our lowest-wage workers,” Ferrandino said of the paraprofessionals who were AmeriCorps members. “It is something we think is the right thing to do.”

The investigation was prompted by a complaint, the report says. To look into it, Serve Colorado officials visited 10 Denver schools where the district employees who were also AmeriCorps members worked. In addition to the 16 AmeriCorps members who were interviewed, investigators spoke with 14 supervisors and reviewed job descriptions and timesheets.

Serve Colorado is an agency housed within the office of Colorado Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne.

Clarification: This story has been updated to reflect that one department and not the entire district has been barred from reapplying for an AmeriCorps grant. It has also been updated to reflect that as part-time employees and AmeriCorps members, Denver paraprofessionals would not have qualified for the full amount of the education award.