A former Director of Indian Education who warned the Department of Education about problems with the GEAR UP grant back in 2011 is speaking out.
KELOLAND Investigates broke the story last week about LuAnn Werdel's emails to Secretary Melody Schopp and department directors.
Along with that email warning, the Department of Education also released emails in which Werdel apologized for sending her original email after getting fired.
But Werdel has stepped forward to explain what was going on at the time. She sat down with KELOLAND's Angela Kennecke for an exclusive interview.
Kennekce first spoke to LuAnn Werdel in 2016, as I was investigating what lead up to the loss of millions of dollars in the GEAR UP grant scandal in South Dakota.
KELOLAND News was told she'd issued an email warning the DOE about conflicts of interest and even possible criminal activity involving two grants that ran through Mid Central, GEAR UP and College Access.
That warning was issued in January of 2011. I had just received a copy of the email when the Department of Education released it as well, along with Werdel's apologies. Schopp says it's obvious Werdel was "distraught" and was "lashing out." But tonight Werdel explains her warning and why she sent an apology afterwards.
“The only mistake I made in all this was sending out those emails apologizing. If I could do it all over again, I wouldn't have apologized," Werdel said.
Werdel says she only apologized on the advice of a mentor because she was worried about the repercussions and her own future in Indian education. She also wrote an email to the U.S. Department of Education expressing confidence in Dan Guericke and Stacy Phelps to run a different grant program.
I'm tying up loose ends. I'm still fearful for friends and colleagues working on these grants, not wanting their livelihood to be impacted. Never once in that email did I say I expressed confidence in Stacy and Dan about GEAR UP or College Access.
Wedel says immediately after being appointed Director of Indian Education, she butted heads with Stacy Phelps over GEAR UP and College Access.
“At the time there were just red flags. You've got to get the data to the right evaluators. You've got to make sure there's not conflict of interest and you've got two board of education members heavily involved in the day-to-day operations,” Werdel said.
In her email to Schopp and ten others in 2011, Werdel wrote the data from the two grants was being commingled, which is illegal.
“I think at times there were questions about the true outcomes of GEAR UP. Was the data being presented in a factual manner? Maybe they needed some data from college access, I'm not sure.
Wedel says Scott Westerhuis told her to stop rocking the boat.
“He said, ‘you're pretty naive, I don't think you really know how things work around here,’” Werdel said.
Werdel says she even arranged a private meeting between Secretary Schopp and Stacy Phelps and that afterwards Schopp met with her.
“And she grabbed me and gave me a hug and said, LuAnn, I'll try to protect you, but you just need to just not worry so much about the grants. You need to focus on larger policy issues,” Werdel said.
But Werdel says she continued to bring up those "red flags" about how the grants were run and that's what she believes got her fired.
“I want our kids to graduate from high school. I want our kids to become productive members of society and this is a lot of money that could have done those things. A lot of this does lie on the shoulders of South Dakota, Werdel said.
Wedel says she was surprised that the ten other people, which included Department of Education Directors, never spoke out about the email warning she sent.
“Is there a climate of fear where people are afraid to speak? I don't know,” Werdel said.
And by the time the Department of Education cancelled its contract with Mid Central, over all the same problems Werdel pointed out in 2011, it was too late.
“I don't think they wanted anything brought to mess up what was going on. GEAR UP was really doing well. Melody was becoming the new secretary of education. They didn't want anyone rocking the boat right then,” Werdel said.
Werdel was contacted by the South Dakota Division of Criminal Investigation today for an interview about the GEAR UP grant. Werdel now works for the St. Francis Indian School on the Rosebud Reservation.
We reached out to the Department of Education and Secretary Melody Schopp for a response. We will bring that to you as soon as we get it.
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