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Schools inquiry gains steam

Santa Ana district trustees fund an audit after whistle-blowing by teachers on phony attendance records.

April 11, 2007|Seema Mehta | Times Staff Writer

Santa Ana Unified School District trustees voted unanimously Tuesday to spend as much as $25,000 to audit their class-size-reduction program, an investigation prompted by reports that teachers 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.

The board also questioned why administrators failed to come to them two months ago when they realized classes were not shrinking as expected after the winter break and instituted the strategy to use long-term substitute teachers to reduce class densities.

"If there was an issue at the beginning of February 2007 and we were running into some choppy waters -- which is a charitable way of describing the situation -- we should have had a conversation about that," said Board of Education President Rob Richardson. "Good intentions are not enough. Good intentions have to supported with an understanding of what the law is."

The district gets $1,024 from the state per year for each first-through-third-grader in a class with an annual average of 20.4 students or fewer per teacher.

The 4-0 vote to approve the audit was a formality, given that district Supt. Jane Russo brought in accounting firm Nigro, Nigro & White last week to look into the class-size reduction program. But on Tuesday, she recommended that the audit be expanded to include the district's ninth-grade class-size-reduction program, which also receives state funds, a step supported by the board.

The elementary school problems became public in recent articles in The Times that detailed the district's attempt to meet the 20-students-per-teacher cap by moving some students off class rosters even though they remained in the same classrooms with others listed.

The problem arose in part because class sizes didn't shrink as expected after the winter break, district officials said, and was compounded when substitute teachers who were supposed to be helping in those oversized classrooms were shifted to other assignments because of a districtwide shortage of subs.

If the substitutes had spent half the day in classrooms that exceeded the 20-to-1 ratio, the district would have been eligible for $512 annually per student.

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. Since then, teachers from at least seven other elementary schools have come forward with similar allegations.

District officials announced in late March that they would hire independent auditors and, in meetings with teachers, pledged to correct any altered attendance rosters.

"Nothing was intentional," school board member Audrey Yamagata-Noji said in an interview Monday. "We did make some errors in terms of our interpretation and operations, but I don't think it's specific to just our district in terms of trying to deal with class-size reduction -- it's a difficult thing to implement."

On Tuesday, board members said they also needed to learn more about which administrators created the substitute-teacher strategy, and how it was communicated to the 27 schools that participated.

"At a very minimum, there is a lack of communication, a lack of direction from our administrators to our school sites," said board member Jose Hernandez. "This should be a wake-up call. Things have to change here."

Auditors visited 12 Santa Ana elementary schools last week, according to Wendy Benkert, assistant superintendent of business services for the county Department of Education, which oversees the district's finances and is monitoring the audit. At each school, auditors visited one randomly selected class at each grade level that was participating in class-size reduction. They spoke with teachers and compared class rosters with the actual number of students in each classroom, she said.

Benkert said, in an interview Monday, that auditors were expected to complete their report by early May. It will include information about whether the district has to return any of the $16 million in class-size-reduction funding it received for the year.

Don Trigg, the Santa Ana district's associate superintendent for business services, said he hoped the report's findings would be presented publicly at the board meeting on April 24 or May 8.

"Something went wrong, and we're trying to figure out what it is and trying to fix it," he said.

Benkert said the district would use those findings to complete its class-size documentation, which would be reviewed by both the auditor and the county department before being sent to the state Department of Education by May 4.

But some teachers and one board member have raised concerns about how the audit is being conducted.

Board member John Palacio, who often finds himself in the board minority, said auditors should visit every classroom in the class-size reduction program.

"Doing a random survey to me is not sufficient," he said in an interview Monday. "I think the district has a fiduciary responsibility to be as thorough as it can."

Teachers and union officials have said they were concerned that auditors were accompanied by school principals, which they described as "intimidating."

Benkert said the sample size was large enough to ensure a thorough investigation, and Hernandez said the principals' presence with the auditors was no cause for concern.

"If someone walks in, who better than the principal to give a tour of the school?" he said in an interview Monday. "There's no reason for [teachers] to be intimidated. The district is taking full responsibility for what happened."

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seema.mehta@latimes.com

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