As students return to their fall routine, hundreds of students have had their educational situation uprooted. New Summit School of Jackson, Mississippi, has closed.
This is a tragedy. New Summit catered to students who didn’t fit in well with the normal schools. It was an oasis for parents and students with ADHD, autistic spectrum issues and other hurdles. The closing of New Summit is a huge blow.
Traditional, typical public and private schools are designed to handle mainstream students. This is not a criticism, just a reality. The curriculum and teaching methods at these schools are designed to best suit the majority of normal students.
But not all students are normal. New Summit was a great solution that gave challenged students hope and a path forward. It was a Godsend to parents.
I know. I was one of them. I had a school age child on the autistic spectrum. If it had not been for New Summit, I don’t know what I would have done. There were no other alternatives.
I’ve already heard three cases of parents who are leaving Jackson because of the closure of New Summit School.
New Summit’s demise is no doubt related to a criminal lawsuit filed by the State Auditor’s Office, led by Shad White, followed by extensive reporting by Anna Wolfe at Mississippi Today. Since then, federal charges have followed. It’s a pile on.
Nancy New, founder of New Summit, was charged with welfare fraud and various types of embezzlement. She awaits her day in court.
I have known Nancy New for years and I was shocked. She would be about the last person on my list of people who I thought might get into trouble like this. In all my dealings with her she was as nice and kind and competent as they come.
I have seen these types of pile ons many, many times during my career as a journalist. Usually, there is a herd mentality. The accused is convicted by the media, long before their day in court. Almost invariably, the reality is more layered and more complex than at first blush.
State auditor Shad White, a Harvard man and Rhodes Scholar, is super smart and skilled. No denying that. But boy does he love getting his name in the media. White told the media, the accused could get hundreds of years in prison and this was the biggest public embezzlement scheme in Mississippi history.
Well, maybe. But as I see it, reallocating discretionary federal funds from one type of program to the next is really not what I would call embezzlement.
The millions of dollars come from a federal block grant program called Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF).
TANF was originally designed to pay cash to families facing temporary financial burdens. But it was an administrative nightmare. Needy families were not very good at applying for TANF funds. That’s why they were needy in the first place.
Over time, TANF morphed into all sorts of different programs, depending on the inclinations of each state receiving the funds.
The TANF regulations were extremely vague about how the money could be used. Basically, anything that helps strengthen lower income families is fair game.
So when the state of Mississippi gave Nancy New TANF money for New Summit School and other projects, it’s hard for me to see that as “millions of dollars of embezzlement.”
Many people may be upset at the redeployment of TANF money for other purposes. I get that. But that doesn’t make it illegal or embezzlement if the allocation of the funds was in accordance with loosey goosey block grant regulations.
To bolster the case of fraud, the state auditor and feds must prove something more blatantly illegal, like outright fraud, lying, stealing etc. Those are the issues on which this case rests. So far, the details on the outright fraud have been sketchy and superficial — a few questionable checks here and there. Given the size of New’s operation, a few incorrect mistakes would be considered de minimis statistical errors, not proof of deliberate fraud.
Any physician processing Medicaid or Medicare claims knows what I’m talking about. They live in fear of random federal prosecution, having heard horror stories of the feds pouring over thousands of pages of inscrutable paperwork, finding a handful of incorrect codes and then being forced to plea bargain or run the risk of years in jail.
Years ago I wrote a series of columns about a family prosecuted by the federal EPA over vague wetlands charges. The family chose to fight and they ended up serving years in jail over trumped up, absurd charges. It’s called prosecutorial abuse.
Remember Enron? When the publicly traded company went bankrupt, CEO Jeff Skilling went to jail. The feds needed a scalp. He spent four years in jail until the U. S. Supreme Court overturned his conviction.
And how can we forget Bernie Ebbers, the high school basketball coach turned promoter who turned Worldcom into a global giant before the dot com crash left his company a smoldering ruin. Lots of people lost money and a head was needed on a platter. The feds got him for reclassifying operating expenses as capital expenditures — an arcane, vague accounting issue if there ever was one. He served the rest of his life in prison.
If this case goes to trial, I plan to be there. It would offer huge insights into the underbelly of state handling of federal block grants. There may be overwhelming evidence of thievery and fraud. And then there may be nothing more than clerical errors and prosecutorial abuse. That’s why we have trials.