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Denver Public Schools pays $2.1 million to settle alleged AmeriCorps rules violations

An empty classroom at Goldrick Elementary School, Dec. 7, 2017.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office alleges Denver Public Schools improperly recruited employees for AmeriCorps positions in 2015 and 2016.

Kevin J. Beaty / Denverite

Denver Public Schools has agreed to pay $2.1 million to settle allegations that it used AmeriCorps funds to offer benefits to existing employees for performing their regular job duties.

AmeriCorps is a federal service program that offers stipends and other incentives, such as loan forgiveness, to Americans who volunteer with nonprofits, public agencies, or other organizations on projects such as helping communities recover from national disasters or mentoring youth. In schools, AmeriCorps volunteers perform jobs such as tutoring students and engaging families.

The lawsuit, brought by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for Colorado, claims that for grant years 2015 and 2016, Denver Public Schools recruited its own employees into AmeriCorps positions and counted their regular job duties as service hours in order to pay them educational benefits. 

“By enrolling teachers as AmeriCorps members, DPS deprived its at-risk students of the additional educational support they were entitled to receive from national service members,” AmeriCorps Inspector General Deborah Jeffrey said in a statement. “Double-counting teachers’ paid work as national service hours meant that the community received no net benefit from AmeriCorps funding.”

The United States Attorney’s Office for the District of Colorado announced the settlement in a press release Tuesday. The district does not admit liability, and the claims in the lawsuit remain allegations.

In a statement, Denver Public Schools officials said the district “acknowledges that allegations of non-compliance were raised” but maintains it ran the program “in alignment with its core mission of educating youth.”

“Once DPS became aware of certain irregularities, it paused the program, investigated practices, and took steps to improve its procedures and processes,” district officials said.

The federal lawsuit alleges six of the district’s AmeriCorps programs received $557,200 in direct funding for which they were not eligible and that AmeriCorps gave out $858,674 in education benefits based on false certifications about service hours in those programs.

In addition to the $2.1 million settlement, Denver Public Schools has agreed to pay for any educational benefits that have not yet been distributed, up to $614,000. The district said those funds will come from reserves and won’t affect educational programming this school year.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office said a former DPS manager admitted that they “pushed the envelope” in ways that violated program rules. The district has fired or accepted the resignations of employees who managed the grants, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Inadequate training, supervision, and record-keeping contributed to the alleged rules violations, the press release said. 

“Denver Public Schools used millions of federal dollars from AmeriCorps in ways that violated the basic rules of the AmeriCorps program,” U.S. Attorney Matthew Kirsch said in a statement. “Its misuse of those funds interfered with AmeriCorps’ core mission — to give students more educational resources.”

The allegations are similar to the findings of a 2018 report from Serve Colorado, the state agency that oversees AmeriCorps programs here. That report led to the district returning $200,000 in federal money it had received for the 2017-18 school year. Roughly 400 employees were deemed ineligible for educational benefits from AmeriCorps. The district agreed to pay those benefits at a cost of up to $1.8 million.

The district did not dispute the findings of the state report at the time.

​​Bureau Chief Erica Meltzer covers education policy and politics and oversees Chalkbeat Colorado’s education coverage. Contact Erica at emeltzer@chalkbeat.org.

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