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New query arises in scandal over Santa Ana's class sizes

Besides elementary grades, the district's ninth-grade practices are questioned.

April 13, 2007|Seema Mehta | Times Staff Writer

When Santa Ana Unified Supt. Jane Russo called for the audit of the district's embattled elementary school class size reduction program to also cover the ninth grade, she assured district trustees at their Tuesday meeting that no concerns had been raised about freshman classes.

But six days earlier, the state Department of Education had notified the principal of Santa Ana High of someone's complaint that the class size reduction policy for ninth grade was apparently being violated.

" ... would you please let me know the situation at Santa Ana High?" John Merris-Coots, head of the state's ninth-grade class size reduction program, wrote in an April 4 e-mail to Principal Dan Salcedo.

The state has not received a response, although Salcedo had told Merris-Coots he would send one the next day.

The request came as Santa Ana Unified has found itself in the midst of a widening scandal in which teachers have complained that administrators, in an effort to collect badly needed money from the state, falsified documents to make it appear that elementary classes were smaller than they were. The accusations have resulted in apologies, an audit and outrage among teachers who say they were asked to lie.

The state has two class size reduction programs. The first, aimed at kindergarten through third grade, provides as much as $1,024 annually per student in classes with an average of 20 students or fewer per teacher and no more than 22 at any one time. The second program, known as Morgan-Hart, is aimed at ninth-grade core classes. This fiscal year, the program will provide $204 per pupil in classes with the same student-teacher ratio.

In the 2005-06 school year, the district received $549,696 for small ninth-grade English classes, according to the state. This year, the district was trying to implement the program in 401 English and math classes, but a recent district report found that 55 were in jeopardy of not qualifying for the funding.

The audit, which the board approved Tuesday night with the ninth grade included, was prompted by articles in The Times that detailed the district's attempt to meet the student caps in elementary school by moving some students off class rosters even though they never changed classrooms. Substitutes who were supposed to be instructing in these classrooms, lowering student-teacher ratios, instead were often assigned to cover for absent teachers.

The district has received $16 million in state funds this school year to keep classes for its youngest students small.

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

Before the school board formally approved spending $25,000 on the audit, Russo urged trustees to expand the audit to include the district's ninth-grade class size reduction program.

"Although class size reduction implementation at ninth grade is not in question, I am asking the board to include ninth-grade class size reduction in the audit," Russo said at the meeting.

But on April 4, someone complained by e-mail to state officials that a ninth-grade English class at Santa Ana High had 27 students.

Merris-Coots, the state official supervising the ninth-grade program, forwarded the complaint to Salcedo that same day.

"The concern is accurate," Merris-Coots added. "As I know second- and third-hand messages are not always accurate, would you please let me know the situation at Santa Ana High?"

Salcedo responded an hour later: "Thank you for the e-mail, Mr. Merris-Coots. I am looking at this situation and should be able to explain tomorrow, Thursday."

A spokeswoman for the state said Merris-Coots never received an answer and was awaiting the results of the audit.

Attempts to reach Salcedo were unsuccessful Thursday.

Supt. Russo said she was unaware of the state's e-mail exchange with Salcedo until The Times forwarded the messages to a district spokeswoman Thursday.

It's not clear whether Salcedo passed on the state's concerns to any district administrators. Russo said she planned to find out more after the district's staff returns from spring break next week.

"I can't read his mind. He may have thought this was something he could respond to easily. Until I can talk to him about that, I wouldn't want to make a judgment," she said.

"Regardless of where that complaint had gone initially," said school board President Rob Richardson, "it probably would have been helpful to share that with the downtown staff immediately.... The core of the issue is to find out what the facts are in that instance and at any school, so we're conducting business the way the law intends."

But board member Audrey Yamagata-Noji noted that the communication between the state and Salcedo came only days before the board meeting.

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