LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Erion Walker, a first grader at Zachary Taylor Elementary, got some help with her reading on Wednesday from an unlikely source: Louisville Metro Councilman Glen Stuckel.

Stuckel is a not a teacher. But every week since October, he and a co-worker have volunteered a half-hour of their time to read with Erion. On Wednesday morning, they sat in the school’s library and read from a few books in Erion’s favorite series, Scooby Doo.

For nearly a decade, Stuckel has helped kids like 6-year-old Erion as part of the Jefferson County Public Schools program Every 1 Reads.

Thanks to longtime volunteers like Stuckel, the 12-year-old Every 1 Reads program still exists at about half of the district’s elementary schools. But today's Every 1 Reads is merely a shadow of the broad, community-wide effort that once involved about 10,000 volunteers in the mid-2000s.

And, while private fundraising for Every 1 Reads ended years ago, records show JCPS has continued to accept about $500,000 a year in state money for the program.

But instead of using the money for reading-related costs, JCPS has quietly diverted the funding to pay for school nurses since the 2008-09 school year -- a fact that surprised officials at the Kentucky Department of Education, several Louisville-area lawmakers and a member of the JCPS board.

The state money has appeared as a line item called “Every 1 Reads” in the Kentucky Department of Education portion of the state budget since 2006. In all, more than $5.7 million has gone to the district for Every 1 Reads.

JCPS officials say the state knew – or should have known – that the money has been used for nurse-related costs since the 2008-09 fiscal year.

But in an interview, Kentucky Education Commissioner Stephen Pruitt said his department was unaware of the change.

“We’ve looked into this and haven't found any indication that there was any communication between JCPS and us regarding a different use of those funds,” Pruitt told WDRB on Thursday.

State Rep. Jim Wayne, a Democrat from Louisville who serves on the House budget committee, said he recalls no discussion of changing the money’s use.

“When we pass a budget, it is the law. So when the money is given out to special groups like JCPS, it’s supposed to be used for the reasons that we've outlined in the budget,” Wayne said. “If they misuse it or spend it for something else, that's a misappropriation. That's essentially stealing from the fund we have it for. That's illegal."

Former state Sen. David Karem – who now runs the Waterfront Development Corp. and is on the Kentucky Board of Education – said he knew the state was funding Every 1 Reads but didn’t know about the money going to nurses.

“Anyone who looks at the budget line item would realistically assume it was going to Every 1 Reads,” said Karem.  “I never heard about it being diverted anywhere….and I certainly did not know it was going to pay for nurses salaries.”

But JCPS Superintendent Donna Hargens said the district has disclosed how it spent the money to the state -- by uploading information into the state’s complex financial and personnel database every three months.

“Every report I have looked at states it very clearly,” Hargens told WDRB on Thursday night.

When asked for a copy of the reports Hargens had seen, she then told a WDRB reporter that “they were probably getting it together for you.”

As of Friday evening, WDRB had not received a copy of those reports. 

It wasn't until Sunday afternoon that WDRB received and was able to review some of the financial reports, board agenda updates and a board report on nurses from JCPS.

The documentation JCPS provided shows that the district updated the state's financial database, but does not show when the funding was diverted to nurses or who was notified about the change.

Pruitt said the education department would not have known to look for nurses because the reports JCPS uploaded to state’s financial reporting system indicated that the money was being used for Every 1 Reads. He added that funding nurses is different than funding reading or literacy programs.

Hargens says that the money began to be diverted to nurses before she arrived at JCPS in 2011.

Cordelia Hardin, the district’s chief financial officer, told WDRB that the state money was received as a reimbursement for the district’s costs.

“We are not hiding anything,” she said. “If we send a request for the funds, if they were not OK with how the money was spent, they would not send us the funds.”

Hardin said using Every 1 Reads money for school nurses is not a stretch because students who have access to a nurse are less likely to be sent home for the day when a medical issue arises.

And, “If a child is not in school, you are not going to be able to help them read,” Hardin said.

It was not until November 2014 that Jefferson County Board of Education documents show Every 1 Reads money funding school nurses, according to a review by WDRB News.

At that time, the board voted to accept the state funding for what board documents describe as the “Every 1 Reads Nurses Initiative” – to be used for salaries, benefits, materials and supplies for current school nurses.

“This funding supports students’ overall care and treatment and will support a connection to the child’s medical provider to ensure the health and medical needs are addressed,” the board document says.

The school board voted to accept the most recent annual state funding -- $451,400 -- for Every 1 Reads on Jan. 26 under the same description.

But the item caught the attention of school board member Linda Duncan.

“I never understood (Every 1 Reads) to be a state-funded issue or initiative,” said Duncan, who was an Every 1 Reads volunteer for eight years and is the longest-serving member of the school board. “To me, it was locally funded by community groups. It’s kind of surprise that our state people were providing any funding.”

Duncan said she spoke to Hargens about her concerns prior to the school board meeting because she was under the impression Every 1 Reads was no longer around.

“I asked her why we were getting state money,” Duncan said. “She said that the money has been going to nurses for the past few years. I had no idea that we didn’t get approval from the state for that.”

It's especially troubling, Duncan says, because the district's reading scores have declined over the past several years.

The most recent state test scores show that more than half of JCPS students are not reading on grade level. Only 48 percent of elementary students, 46 percent of middle-schoolers and 49 percent of high-schoolers scored proficient or better in reading, compared with last year's rates of 49 percent, 45 percent and 51 percent, respectively.

Once a community-wide effort

Every 1 Reads was once a fixture of the community, with support from Greater Louisville Inc., the metro chamber of commerce, and some of Louisville’s most prominent companies like Churchill Downs.

A total of about 10,000 volunteers cycled through the program in its heyday from 2004 to 2008, said Sam Corbett, a former longtime Every 1 Reads mentor and now executive director of the Jefferson County Public Education Foundation.

“We had all sorts of folks that had been involved,” said former Louisville Mayor Jerry Abramson, now an official in the Obama White House. “I went out and spoke to anywhere three people would gather to get the Lions Clubs and the women’s groups and the business groups to give a half-an-hour a week to a child.”

Former Greater Louisville Inc. executive Eileen Pickett recalled that whenever she spoke a Louisville group at that time, she would ask if anyone in attendance volunteered with Every 1 Reads, and there were always at least a few.

“It was something that really seemed to take hold, like not everything does,” Pickett said.          

Today, there are only 320 volunteers for Every 1 Reads, with the program running at 42 of JCPS’ 91 elementary schools, according to JCPS.

That’s well short of a 1,500-volunteer goal that Hargens announced during an Every 1 Reads press conference at Byck Elementary in 2013.

“The sad thing is, we’ve got all these old retired people who could be doing it,” said Stuckel, adding that over years, “I really think we’ve had a positive effect on those kids.”

Brent McKim, president of the Jefferson County Teachers Association, said his organization supports the concept behind Every 1 Reads, but said the union was not aware the state was funding the program.

"I did not know that it was in the state budget," McKim said. "That surprises me, given all the cuts we’ve had over the years."

Until WDRB starting asking questions last week, the district’s phone line for Every 1 Reads volunteers rang incessantly with no answer. And the website www.every1reads.org -- launched in 2008 by JCPS, GLI and Louisville Metro Government – is no longer operable.

Allison Martin, a spokeswoman for JCPS, told WDRB News that the Every 1 Reads program is still mentioned on the district’s website and that JCPS is working to update all of the old information that is listed on the page.

How money was spent

The Jefferson County Public Education Foundation raised at least $4 million for Every 1 Reads from 2004-2008, according to the nonprofit’s tax returns.

The money primarily went to things like paying teachers for extra hours on the job helping students with reading, but also to reading-related costs like textbooks and software, said Hardin.

The state money, meanwhile, started going to nurses in 2008-09, when former Superintendent Sheldon Berman was in charge, according to Hardin.

Berman, who is now superintendent of Andover (Mass.) Public Schools, said he doesn’t know how that happened; only that the idea was to raise private money for nurses in schools as part of Every 1 Reads.

At the start of the 2008-09 year, Berman told the school board that the program was originally supposed to end in 2008, but it would continue under the name “Every 1 Reads More.”

A school board document describing “Every 1 Reads More” said $6 million in private funds would be raised “to support nurses in schools, after-school programs and literacy programs.”

The document says nothing about state funding for Every 1 Reads.

Martin said she understands that Berman and Marty Bell, who was then deputy superintendent, informed members of the House Budget Committee that the Every 1 Reads funding would go to nurses.

But Berman and Bell, who is retired, told WDRB last week that they did not talk to lawmakers about the change.

Other Louisville-area lawmakers -- Reps. Larry Clark and Ron Crimm; Sens. Dan Seum and Gerald Neal; and former Sen. Tim Shaughnessy – said they had no knowledge of the state funding for Every 1 Reads.

And at the September 2013 press conference when Hargens said JCPS was going to recruit 1,500 new volunteers for Every 1 Reads, there was no mention of a school nurses component to the program.

[WATCH that press conference here, via JCPS YouTube Channel]

But on Friday afternoon, Hargens sent a mass-email urging JCPS supporters to ask legislators to restore the $500,000 Every 1 Reads line item, which Gov. Matt Bevin did not include in his proposed two-year budget.

In the email, Hargens included a detailed description of the history and its current use for nurses. 

“Since (2009), the allocation has been used to place 13 school nurses in schools with high absentee rates. A detailed allocation of those funds has been reported every quarter to (the Kentucky Department of Education),” Hargens wrote. “The goal is to reduce absenteeism, which increases students' time in the classroom to focus on learning and literacy instruction. If the line item is not included, our district risks losing these valued professionals that care for some of our most fragile students and their health needs.”

State will keep closer eye on funds

Pruitt, who has been on the job three months, said the state will keep a closer eye on line-items in its budget like Every 1 Reads and require that school districts justify their use of such funds.

“We are going to make sure that the funds are being spent properly and that the funds are being focused in a direction that actually supports student achievement,” Pruitt said.

Seum, a Republican from Louisville, says he was dismayed “no one knew about this at the state level.”

“Obviously, that is not where we intended the money to go,” he said. “There is a big difference between funding a reading program and funding the salaries of nurses, especially when you have other districts in the state that have been asking for money for nurses for years.”

Crimm, a Republican from Louisville, said "this is why we talk so much about transparency."

"Too often, there is money allocated for something and it is not being used for that," Crimm said. "If this money was not used directly for Every 1 Reads to help our kids improve their reading, someone needs to answer for that."

Wayne added, “It's not that the nursing program is bad -- it probably does need some funding.”

“But the way you get that is to be upfront and transparent about it and say we need money for nurses. You don't take money from one program, which is very worthy, without telling people about it,” he said.

McKim, the union president, agrees.

"I think nurses in schools are critically important," McKim said. "It's the way they (JCPS) went about it that appears to be less than transparent." 

Reporter Antoinette Konz covers K-12 education for WDRB News. She can be reached @tkonz on Twitter or at (502)585-0838. Reporter Chris Otts covers business for WDRB News. He can be reached on Twitter @christopherotts or at (502)585-0822.

Copyright 2016 WDRB News. All rights reserved.