Money on the table: Why did programs to help troubled kids decline funds?

PITTSBURGH — They are children “at risk,” often neglected or even delinquent, in special programs working to give them a brighter future. The need is great, so why would so many of these programs — right here in Southwestern Pennsylvania — turn down federal dollars from the American Rescue Plan (ARP), when they need it most?

11 investigates looked at billions in federal funds allocated by the Pennsylvania Department of Education to help schools recover from the impact of COVID. There was so much money available that 2.5%, or about $20 million, was set aside for programs and institutions that help neglected and delinquent youth.

Surprisingly, Channel 11 discovered 21 of these programs that help troubled youth declined to take the money. Even more surprising, the overwhelming majority, 15, were from Southwestern Pennsylvania.

Money on the table

John Bukovac is the president and founder of Alternative Living Solutions (ALS) in Westmoreland County, which provides transitional living for troubled kids, like those aging out of foster care.

ALS was one of the programs that turned down the money.

“We left that money on the table, yep,” Bukovac said.

“I don’t know if I dropped the ball, but I certainly didn’t catch it,” he said.

ALS was allocated a combined total of about $120,000 for eight of their program’s living quarters.

The facility showed up as declining the funds on a list provided by the DOE to 11 Investigates.

At first, Bukovac didn’t remember getting any notification about the money, but after a search of his email, he found one message, and it didn’t give him much time.

“All this was coming at an avalanche speed,” he said.

The email came on a Friday afternoon in August 2021.

“(It said,) ‘Hey, there’s this money available. You got three days to respond to our request,” Bukovac said, summarizing the email.

The email was forwarded to ALS from the Intermediate Unit they work with to get funding for their student residents.

A message at the top of the email said, “This message is being sent on behalf of Ken Krawchuk, N & Program Manager, Division of Federal Programs, Pennsylvania Department of Education.”

The email said Bukovac had to accept or decline the funds by the following Monday, giving him just three days, including two over the weekend.

“I’m not sure how, what the strings attached were or what I have to do for it, to report on it or how to do it,” Bukovac explained.

Having just come off getting a PPP loan, which ALS had to partially pay back, and not completely understanding what the money could be used for, he was hesitant to accept more funding so quickly without more information.

“Who am I going to call in three days?” he said.

So he declined.

Reporter Angie Moreschi asked, “Do you regret that now?”

Bukovac replied, “That’s a matter of hindsight, I guess. Hindsight is always 20/20.”

Bukovac says he tries not to have regrets but wishes he could have had more time and more information about the money designated for his facility.

“We could have used that money for a new furnace or to do renovations in our conference room (where they do tutoring),” he said. “That would have been exceptional.”

Bukovac was not alone in failing to accept the money.

Several Southwestern Pennsylvania programs decline funds

As part of ARP funding, the Pennsylvania Department of Education allocated $20 million to 179 programs for ‘Neglected and Delinquent’ youth statewide.

Most accepted the funds, but the state says 21 declined their share. That’s 12%.

Surprisingly, of the allocations declined, the overwhelming majority, 15, were from Southwestern Pennsylvania.

Those declined included:

  • $120,000 for ALS in Westmoreland County.
  • $22,000 for Girls Hope of Pittsburgh in Coraopolis.
  • Nearly $400,000 for Outside In schools in Westmoreland County.
  • About $300,000 for Shuman Juvenile Detention Center in Allegheny County, which is now closed.
  • $164,000 for the Westmoreland County Youth Shelter and Youth Services Center.

Confusion over notifications

Westmoreland County Commissioner Doug Chew told 11 Investigates he was stunned to learn the county was offered $164,000 but didn’t take it.

Moreschi asked the commissioner, “When I called you a half-hour ago, you had not heard of this?”

Chew agreed, “I had not, no. ...

I can’t believe that we would ever leave money on the table.”

Chew said the $164,000 would have helped their Youth Shelter and Youth Center “tremendously.”

“These centers are very hard to fund. There are always difficulties in finding staff, so this type of ARP funds could really definitely help,” he said.

He vowed to get to the bottom of why the money was declined.

“I will have to do some inspections to figure out where that money was coming from and where or who may have dropped the ball,” Chew said.

11 Investigates contacted multiple programs listed as declining funds, and several told us they didn’t remember getting any notice of the money.

“Wow, I have no idea. This is really weird,” said Tom Wiese, executive director of Girls Hope of Pittsburgh, when we called him. “It’s news to me. I had no idea. I was certainly not aware that we even declined it.”

Weise added, “It (the money) would have been incredibly helpful.”

What happened?

We talked with state leaders at the DOE who are in charge of distributing the money to neglected and delinquent institutions.

On a Zoom call, we asked Susan McCrone, division chief for federal programs, if just one email was sent out.

“Not just one. My goodness, no,” McCrone said.

McCrone and DOE Deputy Secretary for Administration Lori Graham insisted information on the grants was well communicated.

“We really, really were trying to get everything out there and make sure everybody had the opportunity,” Graham said.

McCrone indicated she was surprised that the programs and institutions allocated N & D money told 11 Investigates they would have wanted the funds, but said they got limited notification or didn’t even know about it.

“I am somewhat surprised,” McCrone said. “I feel like anymore you have to live in a hole to not know, um, I don’t mean that in a disrespectful manner, but the ESSER (school pandemic relief funding), the COVID relief funding, the CARES funds, the ARP Act, in general, is out there.”

But something wasn’t adding up.

Breakdown in communications

Graham told 11 Investigates that DOE did a great deal of outreach about the funding.

“Susan’s team did a lot of outreach, as well as other folks, because we want these LEAs (local education agencies) to have the money,” Graham said.

“We understand there might be some difficulty, so Susan has what’s called ‘office hours’ twice a week where LEAs can come in and ask questions. We encourage them. We have a weekly communication that goes out to all the entities.”

But none of the N & D programs we talked to said they got weekly communications.

One potential problem. ‘Neglected and delinquent’ institutions are not like schools that normally receive funding from the DOE. The N & D programs awarded this money work outside of typical DOE channels.

In fact, the state told 11 Investigates that these entities were not able to directly accept the funds from the DOE. They had to go through a school district or Intermediate Unit, which is a regional educational service agency created by the state that helps to coordinate programs.

It appears that could be where some of the breakdown in communication occurred.

“It does take a coordination of services to ensure that the funding is accepted and driven out on their behalf,” McCrone says.

They acknowledged notifications could have fallen through the cracks.

“Turnover is huge in these entities, so somebody could have left, and it could have fallen through the cracks there,” Graham said.

The DOE would not explain in detail, however, who sent notifications to the entities, exactly how many were sent and when.

Missed opportunity

We followed up with Westmoreland County Commissioner Chew, who told us he was determined to find out why the money was declined.

Chew says he had the county’s IT department run an extensive email search to determine if someone received the notification and missed it.

“The commissioners, our fiscal department, our solicitor, the people that usually get emails that there is funding available, none of us have a record of any email,” Chew said.

Chew said the only conclusion he could come up with was the state dropped the ball on notifying programs and institutions that they were allocated the money.

“It seemed like most of the advertising they did was at educational conferences and educational seminars,” he said. “I think they did a poor job of communicating this to people who were outside of traditional education routes.”

Window closed

Unfortunately, the window for these facilities to accept the funds closed in August 2022.

That’s left many, who wish they had more information, frustrated by the missed opportunity.

“Westmoreland County has one of the only juvenile detention and shelter programs in the entire Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. I promise you we could have used that money to do a lot of good,” Chew said.

The state tells 11 Investigates that they are in the process of determining how the leftover funds will be reallocated.

“The door from the original opportunity is closed, right now, but we still have to work on a reallocation process,” McCrone said.

When asked if it’s possible for the entities originally allocated the money to still get it, she said, “At this point, I don’t think it’s an absolute no.”

11 Investigates has followed up with the state several times since that interview, but we’ve only received evasive answers.

“Reallocations will be disbursed upon approval from the federal government and state general assembly,” DOE Communications Director Casey Smith wrote in an email this week.

Chew says he also called Harrisburg weeks ago to try and find out if Westmoreland County could still get the money. As of this writing, he has yet to receive a response.

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