From criminal cases…to a Department of Education lawsuit against school districts, South Dakota lawmakers are asking a lot of questions about the GEAR UP scandal.  

They got answers Monday from the state’s top education official.  

Attorney General Marty Jackley told lawmakers that his investigation isn’t over and he’s still looking into people associated with the GEAR UP grant, including former Secretary of Education Rick Melmer and Former Director of Indian Education Keith Moore and their lucrative roles as consultants for GEAR UP. But the real fireworks began when Secretary of Education Melody Schopp sat down before the GOAC.  

In the meeting, it was proposed that the Secretary of Education take an oath prior to testimony, but there weren’t enough votes to make Schopp swear to tell the truth to the Government Operations and Audit Committee.  She was there to reassure these legislators that the Department of Education did everything it could to monitor and control the GEAR UP grant funds that went through Mid Central. 

“There wasn’t 100 million dollars misappropriated,” Schopp said. “There is $1.4 million they cannot account for.  But those were not funds that came from the GEAR UP Grant and that is the biggest takeaway; that there was no GEAR UP money stolen.”

When asked how many Native American students went to college during the last 12 years of the program, Schopp could only tell lawmakers that number was 285 for the most recent school year.

“Throughout that period of time in the previous history of the grant itself we have various numbers, we have various numbers we could provide, but without that absolute verification— I’m here today to tell you that I can say factually and with validity, we would need to go back and verify student by student in the national… ah, there’s a system we can look at and see if they entered college at a specific period of time,” Schopp said. 

State Senator Stace Nelson, who’s been outspoken on the subject, asked about the state’s former Directors of Indian Education, LuAnn Werdell and Roger Campbell, who both warned the Department about issues with the GEAR UP grant: Something KELOLAND News originally reported last year.

“In their complaints to the state about the problems with Mid Central, was that in any way in writing or emails or memos.  Was there anything that was documented,” Nelson asked.

“Senator there was an email that back and forth with Mr. Campbell that explains some of his concerns,” Schopp said. 

Nelson asked if the committee could review the email.

“I don’t have a specific email exchange, there were conversations that went on between the two of us.  And I’d have to find something very specific because I can’t remember specifically to the level of detail you’re asking about,” Schopp said. 

Given her role with the Department of Education, Nelson pushed Schopp about her personal accountability for the problems with the GEAR UP grant.

“We’re not here because this was a great raving success. We’re here because it was a failure. There are four dead kids at the root of this,” Nelson said. 

“Mr. Nelson there is not a day that I don’t think about those four children and for you to make the implication that any work that was done by the Department of Education affected that tragedy is simply wrong,” Schopp said. 

On Tuesday, GOAC will take proposed legislation that would prevent future problems like we saw with GEAR UP.  One proposed law would require auditors to present board members with their findings. In the case of Mid Central its board said it didn’t have any idea about all the financial problems.  Another part of that legislation would require that anybody who writes up a grant proposal would not be allowed to either work on that grant or evaluate it.