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Santa Ana class-size clash widens

Teachers from seven more schools say they were asked to sign false rosters to shrink student numbers. School board pledges an investigation.

April 03, 2007|Seema Mehta | Times Staff Writer

Allegations that the Santa Ana Unified School District falsified documents to retain state funding for small classes mushroomed Monday, with teachers from more than half a dozen elementary schools saying they were asked to sign inaccurate rosters to make their classes appear smaller.

Meanwhile, documents emerged showing that district officials, including Supt. Jane Russo, had been aware of teachers' concerns about the rosters for more than a month and that the teachers union was offered a series of inaccurate legal justifications for the policy that created phantom classes.

The cash-strapped district could face a large financial hit if it fails to submit documentation to state officials by May 4 showing that kindergarten through third-grade classrooms maintained an average 20:1 student-teacher ratio for the school year. The state already had given the district $16 million based on that assumption.

The controversy became public last week after a Times article detailed the district's attempt to meet the 20-students-per-teacher cap by creating separate class rosters and apparently misusing substitute teachers to make it appear that class sizes were reduced.

The problem arose in part because class sizes didn't shrink as expected.

Eight teachers at Washington Elementary School acted as whistle-blowers, stepping forward after they were asked to sign attendance rosters that omitted several of their students.

Documents revealed that school officials created a second-grade roster of students for a class that didn't exist. The phantom classroom appeared to reduce the number of second-graders in existing classrooms -- allowing the average class size to fall below 20.5 and giving the district an additional $1,024 per student per year.

A substitute teacher was assigned to the nonexistent class, but several teachers at the school said she spent only a few hours over the last month in their classrooms instructing students on her roster.

District officials said last week that the problems were inadvertent and caused by a shortage of substitute teachers, who were supposed to "team teach" with full-time teachers.

Since the initial story was published, teachers from seven other Santa Ana elementary schools have come forward to union officials or The Times with similar complaints.

At Sepulveda Elementary, second-grade teacher Jeffrey Goldberg has 21 students. They all were on his class attendance roster until about a month ago.

"Five kids were taken off my roll. But they are still in my class," said Goldberg, who is the second vice president of the Santa Ana Educators Assn. He has refused to sign the altered rosters. "I just did their report cards, their parent conferences. That's what so many of us are upset about -- it doesn't make sense."

He said six of his students are pulled out of his class for no more than one hour per day to meet with a substitute teacher.

"Pulling someone out for an hour -- that's not going to work," said Lynn Piccoli, who runs the class-size reduction program for the California Department of Education.

At Remington Elementary, third-grade teacher Shenandoah Lynd has 21 students. In February, he was asked to choose one student whose name would be moved to a second-grade classroom roster but who would be left in his classroom.

He refused, writing to his principal on Feb. 16: "... I do NOT agree to put one of my students into second grade 'on paper' because it is a lie.... [L]eave my attendance so that it reflects the reality of my classroom."

The principal did not alter Lynd's rosters or the rosters of other teachers who complained.

Teachers from Taft, Martin, Wilson, Franklin and Walker elementary schools had similar concerns about the altered rosters and apparent misuse of substitute teachers.

Interviews and documents also reveal that district administrators had been aware of the teachers' concerns since at least Feb. 21.

At a February meeting with Russo and Juan M. Lopez, assistant superintendent of human resources, union officials raised concerns about the altered rosters and the use of substitute teachers and were told that the actions were permissible under the California Education Code, said Jennifer Isensee, who handles grievances for the union.

Isensee e-mailed Lopez two days later, asking him for the relevant section of the code, documents show. Days later, according to Isensee, Lopez said the actions were permissible under a directive issued by the Los Angeles County Department of Education. Again, Isensee asked to see the directive and did not receive a reply, she said.

Around the same time, Christine Anderson, the district's executive director of human resources, told Isensee that the moves were permitted under a formula that allowed the district to receive $512 per child for students who spend half a school day in a classroom with 20 or fewer students, Isensee said. One of the ways to accomplish this was to have a substitute help out for half the day.

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