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An American flag is in a classroom as students work on laptops in Newlon Elementary School early on Aug. 25, 2020. The school was one of 55 Discovery Link sites set up by Denver Public Schools where students participated in remote learning during the pandemic. (David Zalubowski, AP Photo)

Denver Public Schools will pay $2.1 million to settle a lawsuit alleging the school district lied about service hours for two years to collect grant money from AmeriCorps, a national education service program. 

The school district falsely reported that a significant portion of the district’s members had performed the necessary service hours to qualify for an AmeriCorps education award in 2015 and 2016, when they had not, the U.S. District Attorney Office, District of Colorado said in a news release Tuesday. 

The U.S. Attorney’s Office alleged that six DPS programs were not eligible for $557,200 they received in direct funding from AmeriCorps, and that AmeriCorps granted the district $858,674 in education awards based on its numerous false certifications for those six programs.

To be eligible for an education award, members must complete a specified number of service hours, among other requirements. The school district is responsible for verifying and certifying those hours to AmeriCorps, which issues the money. 

“Denver Public Schools used millions of federal dollars from AmeriCorps in ways that violated the basic rules of the AmeriCorps program,” Matthew Kirsch, attorney for the United States, said in a statement Tuesday. “It’s misuse of those funds interfered with AmeriCorps’ core mission — to give students more educational resources.” 

According to the Department of Justice, DPS fired, or accepted resignations from, employees who had managed the grants and who falsified education awards.

A spokesman for DPS said the district agreed to the settlement to avoid a lengthy court process, and did not admit liability as part of the deal.  

“DPS maintains its actions were in alignment with its core mission of educating youth,” district spokesman Scott Pribble said in a written statement. “Once DPS became aware of certain irregularities, it paused the program, investigated practices, and took steps to improve its procedures and processes.”

The statement did not lay out the changes at DPS, and Pribble said he didn’t have further details. He did not provide information on who was terminated or resigned.

The district will repay AmeriCorps in full using money from DPS reserves, the statement said, pledging the spending will not impact programs in the coming school year. 

An AmeriCorps spokesperson did not immediately return a request for comment. 

The federally funded service program sends volunteers to work in schools and communities across the county to address community needs, like boosting academic achievement, mentoring youth and fighting poverty. AmeriCorps members commit to service for a period of three months to a year in exchange for a living allowance, education awards and other benefits. 

The settlement will resolve a False Claims Act investigation into the school district’s AmeriCorps program. DPS also agreed to pay for any outstanding AmeriCorps education awards yet to be distributed, up to about $614,000, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said. 

DPS reportedly enrolled its existing employees for AmeriCorps programs and then improperly counted time those staff members spent on their tasks as DPS employees as AmeriCorps service hours, according to the attorney’s office.

The AmeriCorps program through DPS was terminated in 2018 in the wake of an investigation that found that the district did not follow grant requirements for the federal program during the 2017-18 school year. Following the investigation, conducted by Serve Colorado, DPS had to return all of the grants received from the program, totaling $200,000. 

Olivia Prentzel covers breaking news and a wide range of other important issues impacting Coloradans for The Colorado Sun, where she has been a staff writer since 2021. At The Sun, she has covered wildfires, criminal justice, the environment,...