'Double-dipping' sees Laurentian University get $219K extra from province
University and ministry have been negotiating return of money for over a year
Laurentian University is figuring out how to return $219,197 to the Ontario government, after double-billing the province for disability funding between 2011 and 2017.
Ontario's Auditor General wrote in her report late last year that Laurentian's "double-dipping" was an "abuse" of the system, but the university describes it more as an honest mistake.
"It was used exactly what it was supposed to be used for, we just received twice as much of it," said Chris Mercer, who until recently was Laurentian University's associate vice-president of student life, enrolment management and international.
Since his interview with CBC, Mercer has left Laurentian, but the university says his comments still stand.
He said university staff members were unaware that they were applying for the same funding envelopes with the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities and Laurentian didn't notice that over those six years it received double the funding it was supposed to.
"You know it's one of those things where you have a lot of money going in, a lot of money going out," said Mercer.
The Auditor General's report says that Laurentian was applying for money for student supports under the Ontario Student Assistance Program or OSAP bursary for students with disabilities when those services were already being funded through what the Ministry calls its Integrated Accessibility Fund for Students with Disabilities.
The auditor's report and the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities say the mistake was missed by ministry inspectors looking over the Laurentian file in 2013 and was first reported by a concerned student in 2016.
Mercer said while Laurentian received some student complaints, they came around the same time that staff members noticed "some of the money wasn't adding up the way it should."
"The good part of that is in having received extra funding, we were actually able to provide extra service to students, the downside is we completely acknowledge we should not have been receiving that funding," said Mercer.
"And now we need to find a way to continue to do that, obviously without the benefit of some of that extra money."
Mercer said internal procedures at Laurentian and the ministry have now been tightened up, but no employees were disciplined.
Casey Lalonde filed a complaint with the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities in 2016 and believes she is the student mentioned in the auditor general's report.
She studied at Laurentian University between 2007 and 2016.
At the time she was dealing with mental health challenges including post traumatic stress disorder and depression, as well as a learning disability.
She said she would meet with disability support staff to get a letter that would instruct professors to give her extra time to write her exams.
But Lalonde says staff would also get her to fill out disability bursary forms for services, sometimes worth as much as $600, that she didn't feel she needed.
"I asked my case manager one year why I was filling out a bursary for her, when I never came to see her. And I was told that it helped pay for the students who didn't get the bursary, which didn't make sense to me then and it doesn't make sense to me now," said the now 29-year-old.
"I felt like for a long time that I was just a cash cow for that department, that they didn't care about me."
Laurentian to pay penalty?
Lalonde questions Laurentian's claim that this double-billing helped students overall, as she believes she could have received more help, perhaps by being referred to a psychotherapist, with the funds that she signed over to other students.
Laurentian University said it didn't uncover any evidence of what Lalonde is alleging in its investigation into the double-billing.
The university is still negotiating the return of the money to the ministry, arguing that re-paying in one lump sum could hurt programs students depend on.
The talks do include the possibility that Laurentian will pay a penalty over and above the $219,197.
The auditor's report said that as far back as November 2017, Laurentian offered to pay $258,881 in installments over five years, which would amount to a penalty of about $39,000.