CEDAR FALLS - Authorities have filed charges against nine parents of students at Malcolm Price Laboratory School, alleging they gained educational benefits while avoiding paying higher tuition.
The allegations that some families had ducked the larger fees by claiming false addresses first surfaced in July 2009 as part of an audit of the school. Agents with the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation and the State Auditor's Office began probing the false records allegations as early as March 2009.
And on Wednesday, the Iowa Attorney General's Office filed criminal complaints against nine Waterloo and Cedar Falls residents charging them with misdemeanor tampering with records.
They weren't taken into custody but were to be issued a summons to appear in court on April 22. The charges are punishable by up to two years in prison and a $6,250 fine.
Families who lived in the Price Lab neighborhood were charged a fee of about $500 per student while those who lived outside were able to "tuition-in" their children by paying about $5,000 per student. Those charged allegedly used false addresses on hard-copy school records when registering for the 2007-2008 school year.
Some of the addresses used belonged to other family members, but they weren't the addresses where the children lived.
Though the audit named eight families who provided false addresses to the school, charges were only levied against seven of the families. No charges were filed against April South, who had four children enrolled in the school from 2005-2008. The family was approved for open enrollment from the Waterloo School District in 2007-08, the only year the Attorney General's Office chose to file charges for.
Prosecutors declined to say why some avoided charges and why the charges only cover the 2007-2008 school year when the audit found alleged misconduct going back years further.
"I don't think we can comment on our approach. We charged what we thought was appropriate. ... We can't discuss our charging decisions," said Bob Brammer, spokesman for the Iowa Attorney General's Office.
Connie Bigelow, a former secretary at the school, was the only person charged who did not have a child at PLS. She allegedly told her daughter, Angela Bigelow, to give an incorrect address which would allow her child to attend the school without paying the higher tuition-in fee.
Connie Bigelow was placed on administrative leave last fall and then reassigned to another campus office, said James O'Connor, a spokesman for UNI. He couldn't comment on the situation any further because it is a personnel matter.
On Wednesday, Connie Bigelow said she hadn't received her court summons as of 3:30 p.m.. However, her daughter, Angela, who was also charged had called her upset when her papers arrived.
"This has been dragged out for over a year and I guess I am just numb," Connie Bigelow said. "They have taken this and gone crazy with it. It has hurt a lot of people and a lot of families ... the asking and asking and then the waiting for all of this. It's been terrible on everyone. I guess now we just do whatever we have to do."
Burt, who is also a Democrat state lawmaker, said in a prepared statement that the charges filed will give him "an opportunity to set the record straight."
" I believe I am innocent and strongly believe my name will be vindicated once all of the relevant facts come to light," he said. He will not seek re-election this fall.
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Black Hawk County Attorney Tom Ferguson, who is normally the chief prosecutor for local crimes, said last year his office referred the school investigation to the Iowa Attorney General's Office to avoid an appearance of a conflict of interest regarding Burt.
An assistant county attorney, Kim Griffth, is in a relationship with Kerry Burt. In the audit, Griffith is described as Burt's fiance and the deed holder on the Waterloo house Burt listed as his address. There is no other mention of her in the audit.
Ferguson said last year there weren't any indications Griffith was a target in the Price Lab investigation. His office deferred any involvement in the audit and investigation at an early stage, before the findings were released.
The other families either could not be contacted or refused to comment.
Court records show some of the defendants admitted they submitted a false address during enrollment. Other couples told investigators that they were separating from their spouse and one of the parents lived at the address for a period of time with the children.
When school officials asked the Eastmans to verify their address on Washington Street in Cedar Falls in Sept. 2008, the couple, who claimed to be living apart, provided a statement from Lincoln Savings Bank in Reinbeck in September 2008, and in March 2009 Todd Eastman obtained a drivers license listing the Washington Street address, court records state.
The owner of the house, apparently a relative, said the father and the children never lived at the home.
Before 2008-2009, families had to register on paper forms, which included declaring addresses. That was later changed to a computerized form called Power Schools, and families were given passwords to enter information.
School officials said that because the passwords weren't individualized, there was no way to tell which parent was entering the information into the computer system, according to court records.
Last spring, the school sent home letters to families explaining new address verifications requirements which were adopted in response to the audit. Beginning this year, families had to present two documents verifying their address. Parents must also sign a statement that the information is correct and the student lives at the address provided on the enrollment application. This information has been posted on the school's Web site for several months.
The university is attempting to collect unpaid tuition and fees from families who lived outside the Cedar Falls school boundaries. University administrators said they will not collect the unpaid fees, totaling between $81,400 and $90,500, from families who lived outside of the Malcolm Price Lab school zone but within the Cedar Falls boundaries, because the tuition-in fee was never officially approved by the Board of Regents. The board approved the fee for the current and upcoming year in 2009. University administrators previously said that families living within the Cedar Falls boundary lines who "acted in good faith by paying the fees assessed in the past two years," will be refunded about $55,173.
In October, five of the families named in the audit still had children attending the school. Arthur said they are already working on payment plans with those families.