On Springfield

Former Bilingual Educator Indicted for Fraud

Seven years, Springfield schools administrator Yolanda Gomez won something called the “Peter J. Negroni Leadership Award,” named in honor of the former superintendent.

Last week, the now-retired Gomez was arrested for alleged Medicare fraud, accused of taking part in a scheme to try to bilk the healthcare program out of more than $4 million.

Gomez; her husband, Gilberto Gomez, a former supervisor and bilingual teacher in the city schools; and eight others were arrested on Jan. 19 in Puerto Rico, after being indicted by a federal grand jury for allegedly filing false claims with Medicare, as reported by Pete Goonan in the Springfield Republican. The couple is charged with filing thousands of false claims for medical equipment through three companies they own, seeking about $4 million in reimbursement, and actually receiving close to $2 million. The couple was due to be arraigned today.

Yolanda Gomez had been a principal at Brightwood Elementary School and an assistant principal at the Gerena School; prior to that, she was director of the school system’s bilingual education program. In 2002, a highly critical independent audit of the $12.4 million bilingual program during her tenure as director was released, in response to concerns about student performance. The report found that Latino students had lower grades and significantly higher drop-out and discipline rates than other students. It also criticized the program for failing to track student progress after they left the bilingual program and for failing to provide adequate professional development for teachers.

The report came as the state was enmeshed in a great controversy over how to teach bilingual students, which culminated in the passage of a ballot question that replaced the traditional bilingual offerings with an English-immersion approach.

The report had been ordered by Joseph Burke, who’d recently become Springfield superintendent, after years of complaints about the lack of effectiveness of the program. Among those calling for the audit was then-School Committee member José Tosado. At the time, Tosado was accused by some of political posturing, as he prepared to run for the City Council. “Our program comes under attack every four years,” Lourdes Quinones, a teacher in the bilingual program, told the Springfield Union-News at the time.

The results of the report made it clear the program had deep problems. Almost a decade later, in his unsuccessful 2011 campaign for mayor, Tosado highlighted the fact that a big performance gap remains in the city schools, where 58.3 percent of the students at Hispanic. In 2010, only 46.4 percent of Hispanic kids graduated high school within four years, compared to 80 percent of Asian students, 61.5 percent of white students, and 55.2 percent of black students. Within that group, one-third of Hispanic students dropped out, compared to 22.7 percent of black students, 21.5 percent of white students and 6.7 percent of Asians. Thirty-seven percent of kids with limited English proficiency dropped out.

Fourteen percent of the city’s public school students are not considered proficient in English, and about 25 percent don’t speak English as their primary language.

© 2014 The Valley Advocate