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Rep. Brian Higgins is calling on state and federal education officials to audit the Buffalo Public Schools’ use of anti-poverty funds.

In a recent letter to U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and State Education Commissioner John B. King Jr., Higgins, D-Buffalo, asked for an audit to investigate the more than $330,000 that former Assistant Superintendent Debbie Buckley had directed to friends, relatives and business associates.

“There’s been a lack of transparency and oversight over this program that was intended to assist low-income students living in the City of Buffalo,” he said. “The blatant abuse of federal dollars has to be fixed so it doesn’t happen again.”

A story last month on a report on Buckley revealed that several people and entities close to her, including her son, former stepsister and a tutoring business that Buckley started with her mother, benefited from contracts she directed to them.

That report, which the School Board commissioned, triggered Buckley’s termination last June. District officials withheld the report from The Buffalo News for several months, until the newspaper filed a lawsuit seeking its release.

Representatives from the District Parent Coordinating Council met recently with members of Higgins’ staff to ask him to push for an audit. The group for more than a year has been questioning district officials about their use of federal Title I funds, which are intended to help students in poverty.

Higgins said he is requesting an audit that focuses on questionable expenditures of funds under Buckley’s direction but added that such an audit would likely lead to better oversight in the grants department as a whole. “One is a symptom of the other,” he said. “The more quickly we can get the audit done, the more quickly we can get corrective action.”

A spokesman for the state education commissioner said King is reviewing Higgins’ letter and plans to release a copy of his response once it has been written. A spokesman from the federal Department of Education said several factors play into deciding whether the Office of the Inspector General will audit a particular program, including “allegations or reports of possible waste, fraud, or abuse involving a particular program or entity that we may have received.”

“Per our policy, we neither confirm nor deny investigative activity and we do not discuss details of any ongoing audit,” Catherine Grant, a spokesperson for the federal Department of Education’s Office of Inspector General, wrote in an email. “This longstanding policy is in place to protect and maintain the integrity of any effort we may have underway, and the privacy of any individual(s) that may be involved in our work.”

Superintendent Pamela C. Brown released a statement in response to an inquiry from The News. “We share Congressman Higgins’ view that Title I funds should be used to benefit the students of the Buffalo Public Schools,” she said. “As is well known, an independent investigation was conducted, the results of which are helping to inform our future actions so that they will be accountable and in compliance with federal and state standards.”

While Buckley served as assistant superintendent for state and federal programs in 2010 and 2011, she oversaw an annual budget of more than $100 million in grant money, much of it Title I money intended to serve disadvantaged students.

In an extensive interview with the district’s investigators last year, Buckley said she never received any training to be an assistant superintendent and was doing the best she could. She also attributed some of her problems to a flare-up in her rheumatoid arthritis, which she said made it difficult for her to function at work.

“Those entrusted with the public’s confidence, particularly those directly involved in schooling our children, must meet a higher standard,” Higgins wrote. “More rigorous inquiry into this matter is the only way to maintain the public’s confidence in our education system.”

email: mpasciak@buffnews.com