'Reading Roadmap' program once touted as successful in Pittsburg shut down by DCF

PITTSBURG — The Kansas Department for Children and Families (DCF) has terminated an agreement with a company that once described Pittsburg schools as “the model” for implementing the reading program it has administered in recent years.

DCF Secretary Laura Howard “today terminated the agreement with Hysell & Wagner, LLC, which administers the Kansas Reading Roadmap (KRR) program,” a news release from the department last Friday noted. “In addition, Howard also announced the agency will directly fund schools that made plans to offer the KRR program during the 2019-20 school year at the same level Hysell & Wagner was contractually obligated under the terminated grant.”

The KRR program “involves a coordinated series of efforts in-school, after-school, over summer and at home for students to help improve reading and math scores,” the Morning Sun reported in January 2015. DCF is alleging, however, that Hysell & Wagner misused state funds — a charge that the firm is disputing.

“The Department for Children and Families is committed to ensuring that recipients of federal and state funds are spending those funds efficiently,” Howard said in the release. “After reviewing the results of a DCF audit and despite heightened oversight during the first six months of 2019, it’s clear that Hysell & Wagner is falling short of this basic standard.”

The audit conducted by the DCF and “initiated during the Brownback administration but never finalized or released, uncovered problems with internal controls required to achieve compliance with grant terms and conditions and applicable state regulations,” the release notes. “All totaled, DCF auditors determined nearly $2.3 million were incorrectly claimed and paid to Hysell & Wagner during the time period from February 2014 to December 2015.”

Right around the exact middle of that time frame, in early 2015, KRR Director Andrew Hysell said Pittsburg Community Schools (Unified School District 250) were setting an example for the rest of the state in implementing the reading program.

“They’re the model I want to point to, because they’re doing so well,” Hysell said at the time.

By the 2017-18 school year, however, USD 250 discontinued its relationship with the KRR program, according to Elishia Seals, the district’s public information director. Seals said she could not provide any additional information at this time about the reasons for that decision.

The only school district in Crawford County that planned to offer the KRR program in the 2019-20 school year was USD 247 Southeast, according to information from the DCF. As part of National Teacher Appreciation Week earlier this year, KRR honored Southeast Elementary Special Education Teacher Jennifer Lynch with its Outstanding Early Literacy Teacher Award.

Southeast Elementary School Principal Tammie Hall said that because DCF has said it will continue to fund the school’s reading program, she is not anticipating any major problems resulting from the termination of the agreement with Hysell & Wagner, which she described as “an unfortunate mishap” between the company and DCF.

“Everything was fine on our end,” she said. “I’m just assuming the program will be run the same.”

In recent years KRR has funded Southeast’s after-school and summer camp programs to assist students with reading difficulties as well as paying for supplies such as books, computers and iPads.

“The money’s supposed to be there this year” to continue those programs, Hall said. “We’ll still be serving the children to the best of our ability.”

The DCF press release states that Hysell & Wagner used Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) funds, categorized as indirect costs, “for excessive payments to company executives surpassing federal salary limits,” paid $216,000 to the firm’s owners “as direct expenses and more than $607,000 has been charged to the grant in ‘guaranteed payments’ as indirect expenses which would also go to the owners,” and used TANF funds, categorized as indirect costs, to pay for 38 trips between Kansas and the CEO’s and CFO’s residences in Washington, DC and San Diego, Calif.

“Administrative expenses charged to the Kansas Reading Roadmap grant exceeded federal and grant-specific limits of 15% of grant costs,” the release additionally notes. “DCF has, in good faith, worked with Hysell & Wagner to educate and correct the identified issues. Despite these efforts, Hysell & Wagner continues to struggle with the heightened monitoring requirements and has rejected revisions in their FY 2020 contract addressing indirect costs.”

Aside from DCF Secretary Laura Howard, Gov. Laura Kelly also commented on the termination of the agreement with Hysell & Wagner.

“I’ve always been concerned about the use of no-bid contracts and lack of accountability under the previous administration,” Kelly said. “It’s clear that the State of Kansas cannot continue to support Hysell & Wagner’s administration of the Kansas Reading Roadmap program.”

Despite the allegations from the DCF, the Hysell & Wagner firm has disputed both the misuse of funds and the state’s reasons for ending its contract.

Andrew Hysell of Hysell & Wagner said Friday he was “shocked” by the state’s decision.

“I’m completely surprised that they are doing this, and I don’t understand why they made it political,” Hysell said. “This is about a kids’ reading program.”

Hysell said his company’s program developed a model specific to Kansas schools and that executive salary levels were “deemed permissible” by federal auditors.

“We made sure we crossed all our Ts and dotted all our Is,” Hysell said. “We took this very seriously.”

Hysell expanded on these comments on Monday, telling reporters that he believes the DCF is retaliating against his Washington-based firm “for refusing to agree to changes after signing a grant extension in late June,” according to the Associated Press.

The Wichita Eagle additionally reported that “Gov. Laura Kelly’s administration approved a nearly $8 million grant for a Washington, D.C.-based company to operate a reading program for Kansas schools just weeks before canceling it,” according to Hysell.

“It is very clear that DCF did not cancel the grant due to the audit or the Reading Roadmap’s overhead costs. Instead, it did so as retaliation for our refusal to sign a subsequent amendment harmful to our schools and program,” Hysell reportedly said at a Topeka news conference.

DCF spokesman Mike Deines disputed Hysell’s claim that the amendment would harm schools, however, and reportedly said the company’s refusal to agree to it was only “one factor among many” in deciding to terminate the contract.

“DCF needs to be a good steward of taxpayer dollars and as the agency continued to work with Hysell & Wagner it became evident it was not in the best interest of Kansans to continue our relationship with them. What Hysell & Wagner doesn’t understand is that this is about more than just the audit,” Deines said.

In response to DCF charges that executives at his company received “excessive payments” Hysell, whose salary for the upcoming year would have been $192,500, reportedly said salaries at this level “represent what executives get paid at large projects like this, whether they’re public or private.”

Hysell also reportedly said DCF should “make a distinction between misspending money by us and bad paperwork,” adding that his company’s “bookkeeping and the financial management system was not up to speed. But none of (the audits), no finding ever, has shown they were misspent.”