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District Pressed To Return $800,000 in Bilingual Aid

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The federal government and state and local officials in Vermont are talking two different languages about $800,000 in U.S. bilingual-education aid that went to a small, rural district on the Canadian border.

The government wants it back, on the grounds that the students from French-speaking families the funding was aimed at were not really eligible for it.

But school officials, who are being supported by the Vermont Congressional delegation and State Commissioner of Education Richard P. Mills, contend that the local bilingual program received full approval from the U.S. Education Department and thus the grants need not be returned.

In fact, they argue, to do so would financially devastate the district, which includes four elementary schools and a high school. About 850 pupils from three farming communities are enrolled in the schools that were served by the bilingual program, which was halted in June 1987.

Secretary of Education Lauro F. Cavazos declared last week that he would uphold a March ruling by his department's Education Appeal Board that "voided" fiscal 1986 bilingual-education grants awarded to the Franklin Northwest Supervisory Union and charged the district with repaying the $400,061 it received.

In a separate action in March, the Education Department also charged the school system an additional $388,076 as a result of an audit of fiscal 1984 and 1985 bilingual grants.

But Connie Janes Beyor, chairman of the Highgate School Board, said school officials worked with the department in developing the concept of "residual bilingualism"--a term suggesting that their pupils were affected academically by their parents' and grandparents' continuing use of another language. That terminology, she said, was included in the original grant proposal approved by the department in the early 1980's.

"Department officials were fully aware of the nature of the population to be served and not only approved the grants, but also year after year encouraged reapplication and, in one year, nomination of the program as an exemplary program," Mr. Mills said in an April 10 letter to Mr. Cavazos.

"They wrote a grant and abided by its terms," said Mark E. Powden, legislative director for Senator James M. Jeffords, Republican of Vermont. "It's not like someone went flying off to Rio--kids were served."

Representative Peter Smith, a first-term Vermont Republican, asserted in another letter that the sum being charged in connection with the voided grants and the more recent audit finding "threatens the very existence" of schools that already number among the state's poorest.

"There is no way," he added, that the district "can repay any amount above a tenth of the claim without doing extraordinary damage to the schools and, ironically, the children."

Ms. Beyor noted, for example, that the Highgate Elementary School, which would be responsible for roughly $400,000 of the sum being charged to Franklin Northwest, has a total budget of $1.2 million.

In a Jan. 15, 1987, letter informing Franklin Northwest Superintendent of Schools John Robb that it was invalidating its 1986 grants, the de4partment said the district had failed to serve limited-English-proficient students in accordance with the Bilingual Education Act and had failed to maintain sufficient grant records.

In a March 31 letter on the 1984-1985 audit findings, Richard T. Meuller of the department said school officials "failed to demonstrate that any of the students served" in bilingual-education programs "satisfied both prongs" of a test of English proficiency set out in the statute.

To be eligible under the law, he said, students must be born outside the United States or have a native language other than English--and must come from homes in which another language is dominant.

Emile Lagrandeur, a former bi8lingual-education project director for the school district, speculated that the department's actions indicate a desire to contain costs by reserving limited bilingual-education funds for those who "cannot speak English at all."

The case appears to signal a shift from "a more flexible interpretation" of the law to "one that was very specific and aimed more at non-English-speakers than those who are limited-English-proficient," he said. "Those of us that have been funded for a long time got caught in the middle."

Federal officials would be willing to negotiate on the amount and timing of the settlement, according to Marie Robinson, a spokesman for the Education Department. But department officials declined further comment on the matter, pending the resolution of any litigation that arises.

"I'm pleased to see the department now saying it wants a quick and reasonable settlement," Mr. Smith said last week. But he added that he would not be satisfied "until I know for sure that the school district has been cleared of any substantial penalty."

The agency "is in a position to settle for a lower figure," Mr. Powden said. "Senator Jeffords hopes that figure is $1--or if not, something reasonable in light of the school district's resources."

Paul Levine, a lawyer representing the district, said school officials have 60 days to decide whether to challenge Mr. Cavazos' ruling--which concerned only the voided grants--in federal court.

In a similar case involving bilingual-education programs in Louisiana, a federal appeals court ruled that the department could not recover disputed money from school districts without performing a thorough audit. It also said parties must consider such factors as the good faith of school personnel in determining the amount to be repaid.

Franklin Northwest has appealed the recent audit findings to the federal department's new office of administrative-law judges and has requested mediation under the 1988 audit-reform law passed as part of the Hawkins-Stafford Act.

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