A Michigan State Police investigation of Vassar Public Schools and Michigan Educational Partnership – a business that provided online education for students – is examining alleged issuance of fraudulent diplomas and student transcripts, decisions made without school board approval and dummy invoices used to pay a person’s private debts.
Documents obtained by The Advertiser through the Michigan Freedom of Information Act show detectives from at least four Michigan State Police posts have taken part in the year-long probe, which began in November of 2015 at the request of the Michigan Department of Education.
Detective Sgt. Brian McComb of the state police post at Caro said on Tuesday that “a lot of work still needs to be done” on the case, described by McComb as “a complex investigation.”
State Police 1st Lt. Michael Anderson of the agency’s 6th District headquarters in Rockford wrote in a report that he’s investigating “possible fraud involving the Vassar and Ithaca Public Schools and the Michigan Educational Partnership (MEP).” Both school districts contracted with MEP. McComb said investigators with the state police computer crimes unit are involved in the case as well, and that interviews of former students said to be part of the online-education program “are still going on throughout the state.”
“That MEP deal was an ugly, ugly deal,” said Kirk VanWormer, a Vassar Public Schools Board of Education member, in an interview with The Advertiser this summer.
The school districts contracted with Alma-based MEP to run an online-education program, but state education department officials found “irregularities in documentation” of students reported to be enrolled in the program.
A school district receives an amount of state aid per pupil – currently $7,511 per student for Vassar Public Schools – and 90 percent of a district’s enrollment is determined on the fall “count day” when a district calculates its enrollment.
If certain requirements are met, the state allows a school district to count students in a “seat-time waiver program” – used by MEP in the Vassar and Ithaca districts – where students might not be present in district buildings but are taking online classes. For example, an online student must log on to the online academic program a minimum of 10 times starting 30 days before count day, and up to count day.
Vassar Public Schools and Ithaca Public Schools both appealed – unsuccessfully – the state’s decision that the districts repay a combined total of almost $2 million in state aid as determined by pupil-accounting auditors in 2015. A police report states MEP’s “irregularities in documentation” that came to light during the appeals process caught the attention of the education department and of Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette’s office.
Anderson wrote that he met in December of 2015 with state assistant attorneys general Timothy Haynes and Travis Comstock. The detective wrote that Haynes “stated the volume and nature of the irregularities were highly suspicious and was far more egregious than audit items that are usually challenged” by school districts.
The detective wrote Haynes “stated he thought that the documentation thus far supported a fraud by false pretense type investigation centered on MEP and (its) relationship with the two school districts.”
Troubled by MEP
After the state required Vassar to repay the state aid, the Vassar Board of Education placed Superintendent Thomas Palmer on a “non-disciplinary leave of absence” in October of 2015. Palmer, hired as superintendent in 2008, resigned as of Jan. 31 after school attorneys said allegations arose against him during their investigation of the school district’s relationship with MEP.
In Anderson’s incident report and nine supplemental reports obtained by The Advertiser, state police removed some names and information, stating that release of that information would either interfere with law enforcement proceedings or constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.
Anderson wrote that the complaint he’s investigating originated in June of 2015 when Chuck Fabbro, principal at Vassar’s Pioneer Work & Learn Center operated by Wolverine Human Services Inc., told state education department officials he was “uncomfortable with the practices of MEP” and the fact that his emails about his concerns – to a person not named in the police report – hadn’t generated any change.
Vassar Public Schools receives state aid for students at Pioneer Work & Learn Center, and students there can earn Vassar High School diplomas.
But Fabbro reported he was concerned about Vassar diplomas being issued through MEP’s program “without substantiated documentation for credits earned,” and that he was troubled by the pace at which students accumulated credits.
Fabbro, police stated, “wanted to ensure the integrity of a Vassar diploma and questioned who was verifying student transcripts.”
The online students’ transcripts – records of a student’s classes whether or not he passed them – “are convoluted at best, and we’re questioning the validity of the transcripts,” Gene Pierce, Tuscola Intermediate School District superintendent, told The Advertiser on Tuesday.
Principal Fabbro told state education department representatives that Pioneer Work & Learn Center usually issues about three to four diplomas per year, but that the center had issued almost 50 in 2015, with some diplomas issued to students who never had been enrolled at Vassar Public Schools or at Pioneer.
In a police report, Detective Sgt. McComb stated that “after the request for diplomas for kids that never attended Vassar, Fabbro then contacted the Tuscola Intermediate School District.” Vassar Schools then ended its partnership with MEP in May or June of 2015, McComb wrote.
Police reports note Fabbro and Vassar’s pupil accounting auditor found that students in the MEP online program set up at Vassar logged on to the system “in a nearly alphabetical and sequential pattern.”
For example, prior to the October 2014 count day, students with last names from “Alapert” to “Gieger” logged in on Wednesday and Friday, most for one to seven minutes each. Log-ins of students with last names of “Harrington” to “Zamesnik” all took place between 8:08 p.m. and 12:07 a.m. on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.
And “after the 10 log-ins required by (education department) rule, none of the students logged back in until the February (student) count,” Anderson’s report states.
Vassar’s school board approved a contract with MEP, which set up the online-education program at Vassar in the summer of 2014. Police reports state that under MEP’s contracts with Vassar and Ithaca, 90 percent of the state aid generated by the MEP online-education program went to MEP, with the school districts receiving 10 percent of the state aid.
A police report states that a person whose name was removed from the document “negotiated a deal without (Vassar) school board approval” that gave Vassar 15 percent of the state aid if that person agreed to recruit other school districts to sign contracts with MEP.
MEP, according to the police report, claimed to operate “drop-in centers” from Detroit to Escanaba where students could sign on and use computers for their online learning.
Tales of ‘Vassar iSchool’
In 2014, according to police reports, a state rule required an online-education student to log in on count day. Fabbro told detectives that a high percentage of such students’ first log-ins was on the fall count day that year, and that those students remained logged on fewer than five minutes.
Fabbro “said it was extremely suspicious that kids that had been enrolled in the district for a period of time for an online program were logging in for the first time on count day.”
McComb wrote a report stating he interviewed a former student in the MEP online-education program – who also had attended Pioneer Work & Learn Center in Vassar – who sought a duplicate copy of her diploma that indicated she graduated from the “Vassar iSchool.”
The former student emailed a copy of the diploma to Tuscola Intermediate School District officials, who noted that Philip Garcia – identified by police as co-owner of MEP – had signed the diploma as the school “principal.”
But Tuscola Intermediate School District Superintendent Pierce, and Carrie Haubenstricker, the intermediate district’s pupil accounting officer, both told detectives the diploma was fraudulent, according to a police report.
Police state they’ve also received a copy of a letter to a probation officer – signed by Philip Garcia as “superintendent” – stating the former Pioneer student completed enough requirements from Vassar Public Schools and graduated with her diploma in 2015. Police wrote that Pierce and Haubenstricker advised them the letter is a “fraudulent representation of (the student’s) high school credit status” and that the student didn’t have enough credits to graduate from Vassar, nor did Garcia have authority to sign as superintendent.
MEP officials have said Garcia is an Alma High School graduate. So is Palmer, who is a 1981 Alma graduate, according to old-friends.com. Garcia graduated from Alma in 1976, according to classmates.com. Dennis Dunlap, co-owner of MEP along with Garcia, also grew up around Alma, according to state police.
Investigative documents obtained by The Advertiser also state Vassar school officials were “shocked to find that MEP, a privately owned company,” possessed original student files – known as “CA-60” files.
“In those files were medical records, psychological evaluations, birth certificates and other documents that a private company should have never received,” Anderson wrote in his report. “Vassar officials are still perplexed on how MEP received those CA-60s. The CA-60s for kids signed up through MEP in Vassar were from all around the State of Michigan.”
Police reports indicate Fabbro met with MEP co-owners Garcia and Dunlap, and several Vassar school district officials, and that a person – whose name has been removed from the report – stated an “alternative” set of graduation requirements would be instituted prior to giving out Vassar diplomas through the online program. The unnamed person also stated the program would change so it would be operated in a different way rather than via Pioneer Work & Learn Center.
Fabbro told police “that this decision was not taken in front of or ratified by the school board.”
State police reported that invoices that were submitted by MEP – for “services provided to the company” – directed payment not to MEP but to a man with reported ties to MEP. Police wrote in their report that there are rumors the recipient of the money “has ties to gambling.” A Vassar school attorney confronted an unnamed person – whose name has been removed from the report – about the payments and the person stated he owed money to the aforementioned man.
Police reports state invoices also were found that were issued to MEP for about $2,500 worth of work done by Fran Peplinski, the Vassar school district’s business manager. Again, the payment was directed to the man with reported ties to MEP, and not to Vassar Public Schools or Peplinski.
Detectives wrote that Peplinski – who still works for Vassar Public Schools – “later stated she had no knowledge of any submitted invoices.”
Three Vassar Public Schools administrative assistants – Jackie Wilcox, Cheryl Lasceski and Suzy Bringold – “helped unravel the log-in irregularities with (Fabbro),” 1st Lt. Anderson wrote in his report. After the MEP online-education program started running through Pioneer Work & Learn Center in 2014, about 160 students were involved in the program for the fall count day in 2014, which Fabbro told police he found “very alarming” because he hadn’t met the vast majority of those students nor were they housed at Pioneer Work & Learn Center.
The sheer number of enrollments “put a great deal of extra work” on Wilcox, Lasceski and Bringold, according to a police report. When a person not named in the report found out about the extra work, the person asked Fabbro to estimate an approximate amount of work the three women did for MEP on the school district’s time.
Fabbro estimated each administrative assistant did from $1,000 to $1,500 of work for MEP. The unnamed person later arranged for each assistant to receive from $2,000 to $3,000 apiece – double Fabbro’s estimate.
State police report Wilcox reported that she and Bringold each received a $2,000 check in December of 2014 “on top of their hourly wage” from Vassar Public Schools. Detectives state Lasceski told Fabbro she thought she should receive an extra $4,000 for extra work the MEP program was causing her, and that she submitted that amount. In December 2015, Lasceski received a check for $4,500 – from MEP and not from Vassar Public Schools, according to the police report.
“Lasceski stated at one point she even expressed her concerns that she would go to jail knowing what they (Vassar/Pioneer High School) were doing was not right,” according to the police report, which adds that an unnamed person “assured her everything was legal and it was okay to continue on.”
Wilcox told detectives that Vassar Public Schools “received a lot of kids’ names (for the online-education program) but never got any transcripts … to help them establish what grades these students were in and which school district they were previously enrolled with.”
Pierce of the intermediate school district addressed the length of the police investigation.
“It’s interesting that the Michigan State Police are continuing to pursue the investigation,” Pierce said. “If there was nothing there, I think they would have dropped it a long time ago.”
Tom Gilchrist is a reporter for The Advertiser and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org