The quiet departure of Drake State’s president masked ongoing federal inquiry, $327,000 repayment

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HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WHNT) -- Drake State College has seen significant changes over the past few months, with the announced retirement of its longtime President Helen McAlpine.

The circumstances of her departure have been a pretty well-guarded secret.

McAlpine was placed on paid leave in late November without public explanation. Behind the scenes, it appears there was considerable movement.

Two-year college system Chancellor Mark Heinrich sent McAlpine a letter in late February where she was told to resign or face termination at the board’s March 4 meeting.

Heinrich’s letter faulted McAlpine for failing to inform him of an inquiry by the National Science Foundation’s inspector general related to the handling of money from two federal grants.

He said that under his direction, the college’s “assigned professional team” had worked out an assessment to repay more than $327,000 in grant funds. He said more than $500,000 in used grant funds had been questioned.

But instead of resigning or being terminated, McAlpine entered into a retirement agreement with the two-year college system. Her last official day as president of Drake is May 31. She’s been the school’s president since 2000.

McAlpine’s salary is just over $15,000 per month. In a settlement agreement, obtained along with the letter and other documents through a formal records request from the two-year college system, McAlpine and the two-year college system agreed not to make any disparaging comments about the other side to the media.

McAlpine, who has more than 40 years as an educator, is also barred from visiting Drake without Heinrich’s permission. The agreement allows her to attend public events at the campus without permission.

Heinrich has declined numerous interview requests from WHNT News 19 and leaders from Drake have also not been made available for comment.

The inspector general for the National Science Foundation has been investigating two grants at Drake. The $327,000 charge relates to Drake’s largest reported grant, the $1.7 million Spin-Up grant.

The grant is used to encourage high school and college students to pursue STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – education.

John Reutter, Drake’s former dean of research and grant administrator, was placed on leave in December and retired in March. He spoke with WHNT News 19 Monday. He said “no money went into the wrong hands.”  The issues with the STEM grant relate to problems with accounting software that was installed at Drake, Reutter said.

“The Spin-Up grant, being a five-year grant had a lot of activities, a lot of employees involved, and it served approximately 300 students per year,” Reutter said. “So there was a lot of things going on with that grant. It was very difficult to account for all the details.”

Reutter said those problems were compounded by the accounting software malfunctions.

“We encountered many issues during the conversion of data,” he said, “transactions were improperly coded and moved into the wrong accounts, and it really created some problems for us in ascertaining exactly what was going on with the data.

“Unfortunately some of this data then ended up being reviewed by the National Science Foundation before all the corrections had taken place in the transactions.”

The National Science Foundation’s inspector general is also reviewing a second federal grant at Drake. The DIGITEC grant has been a successful program at Drake Reutter said. It was valued at $990,000, involved other schools across the country and focused on electrical engineering-related skills. Reutter said the program won several awards.

The grant was finished two years ago, Reutter said.

The National Science Foundation subpoenaed Drake in February seeking a number of documents related to that grant.

An attorney for the two-year college system told WHNT News 19 the inquiry into the grants has focused on documentation.

“There have been no stated issues about the quality of the programs Drake State offered to the community under these grants,” the attorney said.

“Although we have not received any notice of the specific points of inquiry from the NSF related to the DIGITEC Grant, we expect that similar matters may be reviewed.  There is no timeline for the NSF to communicate with the College or complete its review.  The College is cooperating fully with the NSF review.”

Sources have told WHNT News 19 that protocols for the handling of grant money have been tightened since McAlpine was placed on leave.

Kemba Chambers, the interim president, is also being credited by some in the Drake community for communicating what has been going in with the grant inquiries.

It’s not clear how serious the problems with the National Science Foundation had become, but multiple sources told WHNT News 19 federal investigators were close to “locking the doors” at the school in late November. Those sources credit Heinrich with intervening and working with federal officials.

WHNT News 19 has submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the National Science Foundation for records on its Drake inquiry.

An attorney for the National Science Foundation sent a reply, declining the request. The denial also raised new questions about what’s going on at Drake.

The attorney cited a FOIA exemption, explaining the records are exempt from disclosure, if “the production of such law enforcement records or information could reasonably be expected to interfere with enforcement proceedings.”