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Ruston school cut from Louisiana voucher program

Associated Press

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - A small, church-affiliated school in Ruston has been dropped from Louisiana's voucher program because it charged the state more for tuition than it did parents of non-voucher students, the Department of Education announced Friday.

New Living Word School was cut from the voucher program, based on findings of outside auditors who reviewed the 117 schools in the program, which began statewide for the 2012-13 school year.

Parents of students at the Ruston school will be notified by Monday that the school won't be included in the voucher program in the upcoming school year and will be offered other options for their children. The education department says New Living Word School will have to repay $378,000 in voucher tuition to the state.

The school's principal and the church pastor, Jerry Baldwin, disagreed with the audit and said New Living Word School followed the state guidelines for the voucher program.

"The findings are wrong. They're absurd. They're ridiculous. They're illogical. And we don't agree with them at all," he said in a phone interview.

The education department said only New Living Word School was found to be noncompliant with participation guidelines for the voucher program that uses tax dollars to send students to private schools with state-funded scholarships.

"These findings are evidence that the oversight process is working and that there will be zero tolerance for fiscal mismanagement of taxpayer dollars," Superintendent of Education John White said in a statement.

A closer look at the audits shows that auditors said they couldn't track how 107 of the private schools spent their voucher money to determine if they complied with a requirement that voucher money be spent only on educational purposes.

Meanwhile, a few other schools refused to provide answers to the auditing questionnaire about accounting procedures they used to manage the state funding.

In Ruston, New Living Word School had 93 voucher students in the 2012-13 school year and charged the state $6,300 per student for the year.

During the review period of July 2012 through March, the state paid $4,800 for each voucher student at the school. For its 109 non-voucher students, the school received $550 per student during the same period, according to its audit.

Auditors with Postlethwaite & Netterville said New Living Word's standard tuition rate for non-voucher students is set at $8,500 per year. School officials told auditors they used "in-kind donations" of staff salaries and facilities use to cover much of those tuition costs.

For example, Baldwin said teachers take reduced salaries and donate free tutoring hours to students, and the dollars that otherwise would have been paid for their time are used to cut tuition costs for students. He said the education department knew of the arrangement.

"We see no provision within the program regulations allowing for in-kind services or contributions in determining whether the scholarship tuition charged to the state equals or exceeds tuition charged to non-scholarship students," the auditors wrote.

Baldwin didn't say if he would consider filing a lawsuit to keep from repaying the money or to try to stay in the voucher program.

"We have a right to whatever due process is," he said. "Wherever God leads us, that's what we'll do."

New Living Word School's interest in the voucher program raised some concerns before the statewide program began, with questions about the Ruston school's capability to handle the students with limited facilities and equipment.

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