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Sunday, July 1, 2018

Honors thesis examines the dishonorable

Anna Madsen – Honors Thesis 

Honors graduate, May 2018, from the University of South Dakota Anna Madsen wrote a thesis that does what journalists usually do in detailing the boondoggle that was the GEAR UP program in South Dakota.  It is titled:

Ms. Madsen examined the history of the grant as it originated and how it was administered.  She does not go into the individual performances of the personnel who participated in the swindle, but she identifies the principals and what their ostensible roles were, and she analyzes the requirements of the grant and to what degree they were or were not met--overwhelmingly the latter.  She found from the outset that the "application was proposing a program greatly out of compliance with the grant requirements."

Most astute observers have noted that the crony network that operates at the behest and under the protection of state government agencies were exercising what has become its customary function in state business.  Ms. Madsen's thesis is a tale of organized malfeasance and misfeasance and well-planned embezzlement.  It fits the South Dakota definition of crony capitalism in which capital from the federal government pours into the pockets of cronies.

Ms. Madsen concludes:  "The GEAR UP grant program is a clear example of how “throwing money” at a problem without adequate oversight and checks and balances fails to accomplish its noble goal. In the end, good intent was lost between the dollar signs."  The thesis does a thorough job of presenting the  evidence,  There is, however, a troubling omission in its premise.  It begins by noting that Native Americans comprise 9 percent of South Dakota's total population, but they are only 3.16 percent of the student body in South Dakota Board of Regents institutions.  The thesis seems to assume that ratio is the definitive indicator of Native American students who go on to higher education.  What is left out are the tribal colleges: 

  • Sinte Gleska on the Rosebud Reservation
  • Oglala Lakota on Pine Ridge
  • Sitting Bull on Standing Rock
  • Sisseton Wahpeton on the reservation of that name
  • Cheynne River College Center, a branch of Oglala Lakota on Cheyenne River Reservation
And then there are the South Dakota native students who go to in-state private schools or out-of-state schools. Their inclusion would probably not boost the percentage of native students who venture into post-secondary education very much, but it would give a more complete picture of of the opportunities available and the degree to which they are utilized.

The percentage of native students going to college is of concern and is what GEAR  UP and other programs are expressly designed to address.  The story here is how some officials and purported educators inveigled themselves into a cut of the take from this massive taxpayer rip off.  Very little of the millions of dollars dribbled down to students.  The manager of the organization that administered the project is alleged to have killed his spouse and four children before setting his house on fire and killing himself.  GEAR UP in South Dakota is branded as a community-shattering atrocity, not an occasion of benevolence.  Ms. Madsen's narrative reveals an elaborate system of contractors and consultants which have little effect on enhancing the education of youths, but devoted and adroit at scamming the system.  GEAR  UP appears totally devoid of the spirit and purpose with which most teachers I am acquainted with address their classrooms.  The educational bureaucracy disdains learning.

I am frankly flummoxed by the GEAR UP proceedings.  I have been involved in a number of grant-funded projects over the years, although none from the Department of Education.  All the grants required a fiscal officer who applied the rules governing the expenditures of money.  The fiscal officer had to report regularly to the grant-funding organization.  In one case during a summer institute for teachers, we provided lunch.  As the food service was on a summer break, we had to make special arrangements with a cook and a server to provide the lunch.  In their evaluations of the institute, the teachers commented on how much they enjoyed the lunches.  The hitch came when we included a gratuity on the bill for the lunches.  The fiscal officer said the rules did not provide for tips.  We directors of the project took up a collection to provide a decent gratuity.  The incident shows how closely financial matters were monitored.

All of the grants I've worked with were under constant audit.  None of the money was discretionary, and we had to document that it was used for the purposes to which it was dedicated.    

The U.S. Department of Education shares much responsibility for the  perversion of GEAR UP in the name of education.  It approved a proposal that did not meet its published standards.  It did not practice the stringent reviews and audits that are customary in administering educational grants.  The Department's performance needs thorough investigation.

Its disfunction does not absolve the South Dakota vultures who carried out the depredations against trusting taxpayers and expectant students.  The teachers I have worked with go to work each day with integrity and good purpose.  Many buy supplies for students from their own pockets.  Their betrayal by members of the bureaucracy that presumes to direct their efforts is a big part of the atrocities committed in the GEAR UP swindle.  It is indefensible.

However, the teachers who directly delivered to students what benefit that GEAR UP offered receive scant mention in any of the accounts.  Those who managed the program did not consider it important to keep a record of where the program actually worked.  In their zeal to obfuscate the swindle, they ignored what honest and successful moments the program might claim.

Ms. Madsen's thesis presents the anatomy of a malignant crime.  It calls into account an educational bureaucracy more interested and practiced in financial swindling than in delivering an effective education.   

There is much that can and should be done on the basis of the information provided by Ms. Madsen's thesis as well as other sources.  A first step would be to put education back in the hands and minds of teachers.


Michael L. Wyland said...


Most federal grants split federal administration between a program officer, who monitors the implementation of the grant-funded activities and results, and a fiscal officer who monitor the expenditure of funds to be sure funds are spent in accordance with federal regulations and as allowed under the grant.

The problem is that, with rare exception, the program officer and the fiscal officer don't communicate with each other. As long as the money is properly accounted for, the fiscal officer doesn't look at program operation. As long as program objectives are being pursued by the grantee, the program officer doesn't question how activities are performed. The result is that the value proposition - are we getting bang for our buck? - is never asked, much less answered.

At the state level, this is reflected in the activities of DCI and GOAC. DCI looks at criminal conduct, of which there was remarkably little in SD GEAR UP. GOAC looks at financial recordkeeping and fiscal audit issues, which oversight encompasses whether money is accounted for but does not address value for money. Auditor General Marty Guindon stated at the August, 2017 GOAC meeting that GOAC does not do management audits, it does fiscal (financial) audits.

SD GEAR UP was primarily a management scandal, not primarily a criminal enterprise and not primarily a financial breach in an auditing/accounting sense. It fell between the regulatory/oversight cracks at the state level just as it did at the federal level.

Ms. Madsen's honors thesis is excellent, and I'm honored to be cited as a source in it.

mike from iowa said...

Oversight is probably one of those burdensome governmental regulations wingnuts rail about every election cycle. Look at how much smoother crony capitalism works without that regulation. It certainly could be shown that the use of oversight would cost a pretty penny to all the grifters in line for a slice of the generous grant millions available, so therefore it is a worthy undertaking to get rid of it.

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