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Media & Technologyby Joan Jacobson4:31 pmNov 12, 20100

Reporter finds herself the witness in alleged tutoring scam

“If I had not called the state prosecutor’s office, would someone in the school system have done the right thing and reported this?”

Above: Sensing that “something wasn’t right” about the company supplying the tutor for her son, Joan Jacobson called Baltimore school officials to ask questions about the private company they had approved for him.

A year ago I learned the details of a possible fraud against the Baltimore city school system that would have caught my interest in the days when I was a reporter at The Sun: tax dollars might have been stolen that were earmarked for tutoring special education students. A child’s school record appeared to be falsified. And a parent’s signature was forged.

If ever there was a “gotcha story,” as we reporters called it, this was it.

But I no longer worked for The Sun. The student with the falsified record was my son. And I was the parent whose signature had been forged.

What began as a concerned phone call to city school headquarters about unorthodox behavior by a private contractor supplying a tutor for my child, ended with the revelation that public funds might have been stolen at the expense of my child’s education.

Today, the private contractor entrusted by the school system to provide the tutors for some of Baltimore’s most vulnerable students has been indicted and charged with one count of theft and one count of attempted theft for allegedly bilking the city school system of more than $100,000 for special education tutoring that never took place.

My story unfolded on December 1 of last year. My son, who had suffered from depression and had attended high school intermittently, now had an “Independent Education Plan” as a special education student. The plan included a requirement that the school system provide him with a math and English tutor who would come to our house.

But I had concerns about Queens Mobile Education, the private tutoring company contracted by the city school system to provide instruction to my son. I called the Department of Education’s headquarters on North Avenue and spoke to a staffer in the special education office in charge of  “compensatory services.”  Queens Mobile, I told her, supplied an English tutor, but no one to help him with math.

The tutor was very able and dedicated, but my husband and I worried we would lose her. In fact, the tutor told us she might have to quit because she was not being paid in a timely manner. She had told us of one late payment that came from Queens Mobile in cash placed in an envelope, and shoved under the tutor’s door late one night.

When I finished my story, the school official agreed that was an odd way of doing business. She then began to go over my son’s file. As she read its contents, my concern grew into alarm.

The tutor’s name was wrong. The number of hours Queens Mobile listed as having tutored my son – and for which the company received reimbursement – far exceeded his actual hours of instruction.

And none of the dates and times the tutor was reported to have worked were accurate. When the school official read me a series of dates and times billed for tutoring in July, I told her none of them had occurred.

But your signature is on the sheet, she said.

Not my signature, I replied.

I immediately faxed my signature to the official, and she concurred that my name on numerous time sheets was not my signature.

Just about the only accurate information in the file, it seemed, was my son’s name and the number of hours he was initially supposed to receive in tutoring. I later realized the week in July containing several hours of alleged tutoring was a week when our family was out of town on vacation.

Later that day, I got a conference call from the official and her supervisor. They said they would begin my son’s tutoring services all over (the tutor we had should have been a certified special educator, but was not). I told them I did not want a tutor from a company that may have stolen tax dollars and forged my signature. They seemed reluctant, explaining that Queens Mobile had many good tutors and that the school system had a good relationship with the company’s owner.

That day a year ago, before I hung up with school officials, I asked them what they would do with the information they had about Queens Mobile Education. They said they would handle it, but said no more. I had no idea if they would report this possible crime to anyone in law enforcement. And, as a parent, I was under no illusion that they would share such a sensitive decision with me.

I was faced with a dilemma: I was shown evidence that a fraud may have been committed against the city school system. Tax dollars might have been stolen. My son was denied legally mandated education services. And my signature was forged in order to get away with the alleged fraud. It also made sense to me that this one fraud could be part of a larger scheme.

I was alone in deciding to report this possible crime, just as I would decide to call police if I witnessed a purse snatching or a burglary.

A week later I called the Maryland Office of the State Prosecutor. I knew Jim Cabezas, the chief investigator, from my work as a reporter. He also appeared in a book I co-authored for his undercover detective work investigating organized crime.

It was the first he’d heard of the case.

I’ve been wondering for a year now, if I had not called the state prosecutor’s office, would someone in the school system have done the right thing and reported this possible crime? I hope so.

((UPDATE: Some response by the Baltimore City school system on the case.))

I did hear that the city stopped doing business with Queens Mobile after discovering the fraud. But without a criminal investigation the company might have set up shop with another school system and continued the alleged theft of tax dollars and denying an education to even more children.

I also wonder why North Avenue had outsourced this important work to a private contractor without at least spot checking the company’s claims for reimbursement. A contractor, paid for every hour she allegedly provides tutors, stands to gain by false claims, after all. Perhaps if the school system had employed qualified tutors directly to do the job, there would have been no fraud.

After she was gone, we missed our son’s tutor, who was an innocent party in the alleged scheme. It took three months for the school system to find a new tutor (who works for another contractor), but she is all a parent could hope for: a kind professional, veteran special educator, who makes our child feel at ease as she teaches him both English and math. Our son even reports that she makes Algebra seem easy.

– Joan Jacobson wrote for The Baltimore Sun and The Evening Sun for 28 years.

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