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In-progress review shows around 7% of Empowering Parents purchases may be ineligible

Jackie Ferrentino for NPR

About 7% of purchases made with micro-grants from Idaho’s Empowering Parents Program may have been ineligible.

Gov. Brad Little recently called for an independent financial audit of the program to make sure taxpayer dollars were spent properly. Idaho State Board of Education staff began reviewing purchases in April and are about two-thirds of the way through that process.

Chief Policy and Government Affairs Officer Jenn Thompson gave the State Board of Education Board of Trustees an update Wednesday at the board's regular meeting in Pocatello.

“About 80% of the purchases that are made are very clearly eligible purchases; the program is working the way the legislature intended,” she said. “About 7% of [purchases] appear to be ineligible.”

Empowering Parents used federal pandemic funding to provide $1,000 per child, up to $3,000 per household for educational spending. Low and middle-income households were prioritized for the grants, but had to apply.

The state says since last fall it has distributed $50 million dollars benefitting roughly 50,000 students. Purchases of items or services are made through an online marketplace run by a contractor, known as Odyssey. Vendors on the marketplace are approved for participation, which includes a portal to amazon.com, among many other online vendors that sell qualifying and non-qualifying items.

“This is a terrific program,” said State Board of Education trustee Chairman Kurt Liebich. "But with any program, there's room for improvement.”

Thompson said households can be removed from the program for making ineligible purchases and the state is exploring ways to get back improperly spent funds. But she said some of those purchases already flagged as ineligible are likely items students will use for allowed activities, like backpacks or ballet shoes.

“Rather than notifying all of those parents that they're instantly ineligible, we've decided to take that as a package to the [advisory board] and ask the panel to have a discussion about whether or not they want to make a recommendation to this board to add additional eligible items or an additional eligible category to the list that would encompass those sorts of educational items,” Thompson said.

The Empowering Parents advisory board still needs to determine how the appeal process operates to avoid removing families unfairly.

As the process continues, weekly reports will be provided to State Board of Education trustees, replacing the current monthly reports staff use as a monitoring tool.

Trustees who spoke about the program praised its overall success, noting that the state office caught emerging patterns of ineligible purchases months ago. Some vendors were suspended or removed and Odyssey has updated its procedures to decrease the likelihood of future ineligible purchases

“We have been doing an appropriate level of oversight and accountability, because it was our staff of one who identified and flagged some purchasing irregularities and started doing that review work and doing that due diligence,” Trustee Matt Freeman said.

The review is expected to be completed by the end of this month, and Thompson says monthly reports on the program will become weekly updates going forward. A presentation on the results of the internal review is planned for the State Board of Education Board of Trustees' August meeting.

The State has also asked Odyssey to "cure" a practice of holding state funding in interest-bearing accounts and retaining the earnings on the idle money.

Thompson says the state is also working with Odyssey to expand the number of vendors and services available on the program marketplace.

Troy Oppie is a reporter and local host of 'All Things Considered' for Boise State Public Radio News.

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