Sunday, July 29, 2007


...there is evidence of fiscal abuse that actually impacts education in Santa Ana (class size reduction) and Val Verde (school construction) School Districts.

SANTA ANA'S CLASS-SIZE WOES EXPAND: Audits find that overcrowded classroom problems affected ninth-graders as well. Financial impact won't be known until August.

by Seema Mehta, LA Times Staff Writer

July 25, 2007 - Audits of Santa Ana Unified School District's troubled class-size reduction program have found that problems with overcrowded classes exceeding state caps were not limited to elementary schools but affected ninth-graders as well, independent auditor Christy White said at a school board meeting Tuesday.

In district high schools, special education students taught in mainstream classes were not included on class rosters, making it appear that the classes met state size requirements when they were actually too large to be eligible for class-size reduction funding, White said.

Other classes simply had too many enrolled students to qualify for funding, she said.

The depth of the problem and its financial impact won't be publicly known until the final audit is presented to the school board in August, she said, but in the 2005-06 school year the district received $549,696 in state funds for keeping high school classes small.

The loss will be on top of the $2 million in state funding the district is losing for failing to keep elementary classes limited to an average of 20.4 students per teacher. Those problems came to light in a series of Times articles reporting that teachers at several elementary schools were asked to sign falsified class rosters and that the district misused substitute teachers in an attempt to qualify for $16 million in state funds during the 2006-07 school year.

District officials have said the elementary school problems occurred when class sizes didn't shrink as much as expected after the winter holiday. In hopes of salvaging some class-size reduction funds, they said, it was decided to add long-term substitute teachers to some classrooms to improve student-teacher ratios.

The preliminary audit — conducted by the public accounting firm of Nigro, Nigro & White — found that this method had failed, however, because of poor instructions and inadequate monitoring by district administrators, a failure to hire enough substitutes and a lack of classroom space.

On Tuesday, White presented the final audit of the elementary program and reiterated that those inadequacies laid the groundwork for the problems. She urged the district to provide adequate staffing, monitor class sizes frequently, ensure that class rosters are recorded accurately and identify a class-size reduction program manager responsible for overseeing the program.

Supt. Jane Russo named Assistant Supt. Helen Stainer to oversee K-3 class-size reduction, and Assistant Supt. Lewis Bratcher to oversee the ninth-grade program. Top administrators and the school board will be apprised monthly of class sizes, she added.

Schools trustees were bothered by the revelations, and some said White's audit did not go far enough.

Board member Audrey Yamagata-Noji questioned whether something in the district's culture allowed the problems to go unrecognized for months until teachers spoke out publicly in March.

"Along the way, there were too many individuals who knew," she said.

Board member John Palacio urged the board to order audits of the prior school year, saying that teachers have told him the irregularities were not limited to the 2006-07 school year.

"We've been doing class-size reduction for a decade…. No one was in charge. No one was monitoring," he said.

Board members planned to discuss the issue further in closed session, when they are legally allowed to deal with personnel matters, board President Rob Richardson said.

"Folks operate, generally speaking, with good intentions," he said. "Good intentions aren't enough. You must understand what the laws are."

VAL VERDE DISTRICT'S FUNDING IS UNDER INVESTIGATION: The state is looking for inaccuracies in financial aid papers filed by Val Verde administrators.

by Maeve Reston, LA Times Staff Writer

July 27, 2007 - State officials are investigating whether the Val Verde school district gamed the system that parcels out construction funds.

A top official at the state's Office of Public School Construction said her office was looking into whether there were any "material inaccuracies" or false certifications in the paperwork the Perris-area district submitted in recent years to get financial aid to build its schools.

Kathy Hicks, the agency's chief of program services, said she was also examining whether Val Verde officials had violated regulations by making significant changes to state-approved projects — such as adding weight rooms and artificial turf — without approval from state architects.

The district took a hit Wednesday, when the state panel that doles out bond funds voted unanimously to remove the district from the state's financial hardship program. Under the program, the state has paid the entire cost of nearly two dozen district building projects. Most districts receive just 50%.

Val Verde got into trouble by independently borrowing $89 million to cover cost overruns on state-funded projects.

District officials said they had to borrow the money because state grants were inadequate. But officials criticized the district's spending on locker room whirlpools, large weight rooms and elaborate sports stadiums.

The State Allocation Board, which oversees the distribution of school construction money, ruled this week that the funds Val Verde borrowed should have been deducted from the aid that Val Verde was getting from the state. In at least one instance, the district also failed to notify the state that it had borrowed some of that money — one of the issues under investigation.

"They are no longer eligible to participate in the [financial hardship] program," Hicks said. "They have too much money."

Supt. C. Fred Workman said the State Allocation Board's action meant the district must now delay the construction of at least two projects — Southeast High School and Perris West End Middle School — as it scrambles to find money to pay its 50% share of new construction.

The delay will lead to major overcrowding at Rancho Verde High School, Workman said. The school is already exceeding its 3,700-student capacity and is expected to have 6,000 students by 2010. The school is already using 45 portable buildings, he said.

"The growth is not going to go away," Workman said.

This month, the district sued state officials in Riverside County Superior Court, contending that state grants were inadequate and that schools in financial hardship should get enough aid to build schools equivalent to those in wealthier districts.

"We don't believe there was any material inaccuracy" in the financial records presented to the state, said Jonathan Mott, the school district's attorney. "It's a distraction to the board from the real issue that Val Verde is bringing up, which is that state grants are inadequate."

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