Gazette opinion: Montana veterans lose in education grant snafu

2013-06-06T00:10:00Z Gazette opinion: Montana veterans lose in education grant snafu The Billings Gazette
June 06, 2013 12:10 am

More than 50 Montana veterans won’t get the college prep classes they had signed up for this summer.

That’s the most important fact in this frustrating example of unresponsive federal bureaucracy and miscommunication.

Montana State University has operated a Veterans Upward Bound program since 2007 with a federal grant made to MSU-Northern, administered at MSU Billings and offered at up to eight sites statewide, depending on where Montana veterans needed the classes. It has been designated an “exemplary program” by the U.S. Department of Education, which extended the grant for additional years. The MSU program has had a low cost per participant and it has been the largest Upward Bound program in the nation, serving up to 230 veterans at a time, according to Dr. Luke Petriccione, Upward Bound director in Billings. Most Upward Bound programs, even in large metro areas, serve no more than 125 veterans.

With two years left on its grant, MSU program leaders expected to receive $541,000 for 2012-2013, the same amount it had been receiving to serve 230 veterans. Instead, its grant award last September was only $341,000. MSU contacted its U.S. Department of Education contract officer in September and was told that an “administrative error” had occurred. For the next four months, MSU officials tried to work with that federal officer to get the error corrected. Then they appealed to the TRIO programs director. The department informed MSU in January that there was no error and no more money.

That created an immediate budget shortfall for Upward Bound in Montana. MSU sought the help of Sen. Jon Tester, whose office interceded with the Education Department. Tester wrote a letter to U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, urging him “to explore all options available to the department to keep this valuable program running uninterrupted.”

Duncan replied that the grant program had implemented changes, that MSU had been notified of the changes and that the changes, which included a smaller grant award to MSU, were effective immediately last fall.

Both Duncan’s letter and department spokespeople who talked to The Gazette said Upward Bound changes will allow more veterans to be served.

That certainly isn’t true in Montana.

“Summer is really critical because we have a lot of veterans who planned to start college in the fall,” Petriccione said this week.

Montana’s Upward Bound will be back in action this fall with a slate of 10 classes, including computer skills, algebra, Arabic, writing and science. The program will serve up to 155 veterans with the smaller grant award.

The explanations from the U.S. Department of Education are confusing, and the timing of the grant changes was abrupt. Whatever good intentions there may have been, the end result is disruption of services to Montana veterans.

With so much talk of better service to those who have served our country, the Veterans Upward Bound summer closure is a shame. Serving veterans means meeting their needs, rather than further complicating arcane grant requirements.

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