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Bowne HS tutoring firm targeted by comptroller

TimesLedger Newspapers

A Flushing high school had the highest number of students in the city who used a free tutoring service accused of receiving questionable payments from the city Department of Education, the city comptroller said.

Comptroller John Liu conducted an audit and found Champion Learning Center, a contractor hired to do tutoring work, received $850,000 from the DOE based on suspect time and attendance sheets, according to the audit.

And John Bowne High School in Flushing had 787 students who used the Manhattan-based tutoring service last school year, more than double any other school in the city.

“Taxpayers can’t afford to write multimillion-dollar blank checks for tutoring services that may not have taken place,” Liu said. “The city Department of Education’s lack of oversight not only shows serious mismanagement, but may have also enabled fraudulent billings.”

The students at John Bowne, who also led the city in tutoring from the center during the 2009-10 school year, were in the program as part of the No Child Left Behind Act.

Students in struggling schools are provided free tutoring as part of the act, and Champion was one of the state-approved companies.

But the lack of adequate documentation, controls and oversight by the tutor and the DOE called into question the authenticity of the three-year, $40 million contract, Liu said.

In some cases, the DOE paid the company for work performed at improbable times, like midnight to 5 a.m., the audit said. In other cases, the DOE doled out cash for tutoring during times prohibited under the contract, according to the audit.

The DOE agreed that the city should recoup the money, but took issue with some of the audit’s findings accusing the city of poor oversight.

The tutoring company said in a response to the audit that the odd billing hours were the result of typos, and that it was not initially aware of any time prohibitions on tutoring during the school day. Due to overcrowding, some students run on staggered schedules, but the prohibited time for tutoring was from 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. across the board.

The audit also found the online venue where tutors reported their hours needed more oversight. Since the audit, that venue has been updated to prohibit any company from logging time that is prohibited under the contract, or is at such a bizarre hour that the tutoring likely did not take place.

In the 2010-11 school year, Long Island City High School had 246 students who used the service, the third-highest in the city.

During the previous school year, John Bowne had 491 students who used the service, again the highest in the city, while 281 students at Long Island City used the service.

Reach reporter Joe Anuta by e-mail at januta@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4566.

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