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Company Sees Retaliation In Kansas Ending Literacy Grant

Evan Pflugradt
KMUW/File photo

The president of the company that formerly ran a literacy program for Kansas' public elementary schools alleged Monday that the state canceled the multimillion-dollar grant in "retaliation" for the firm's opposition to major changes state officials were seeking.

The Kansas Department for Children and Families ended the grant for Washington-based Hysell & Wagner six weeks after its president, Andrew Hysell, and department secretary, Laura Howard, signed a yearlong extension in late June imposing new conditions. Hysell told reporters that two days after he and Howard signed the extension, the department began seeking another change, in how the company distributed grant dollars to public schools.

The department announced the end of the grant Friday, saying it had found problems that included excessive payments for expenses that included travel by Hysell and another top executive for the Reading Roadmap program.

The department also released the draft of an internal audit completed in 2017 that hadn't previously been made public, which said $2.3 million in grant funds were "incorrectly claimed and paid" to the company in 2014 and 2015. Hysell strongly disputed those claims Monday or suggestions that administrative expenses were improper.

The department cited the draft audit's conclusions in announcing its decision to end the grant, and Hysell on Monday called it "grossly inaccurate." He said releasing details from the draft audit violates the company's rights to due legal process and accused the department of "a dangerous abuse of governmental authority." The result was "traumatic" for Reading Roadmap staff, he said.

"There were tears disbelief," he said. "I can't just let this sit out there."

The department launched the Reading Roadmap initiative during Republican Gov. Sam Brownback's administration, using funds designated for cash assistance to low-income families. Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly took office in January, having been a state senator and vocal critic of Brownback's social services policies.

Spokesman Mike Deines said the department ended the grant because it "needs to be a good steward of taxpayer dollars." The grant once was worth more than $9 million a year, though the latest extension called for the state to spend $7.8 million.

Howard and Hysell signed the one-year extension of the grant on June 28, just three days before the start of the state's current budget year.

Hysell said that on June 30, the department began pushing the company to change its system for distributing dollars to school districts, in which they received most of their money as two big advances, rather than after-the-fact reimbursements. Hysell said small districts might face problems paying staff costs otherwise.

He released a memo dated Aug. 4, which he said went to department officials, saying the proposed change would "put schools at risk" and create "significant problems."

But Deines said the department's decision wasn't based only on the company's resistance to changing how grant funds were distributed.

"It was an accumulation of issues," he said in an email.

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