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More losses for schools in Santa Ana

Class-size reduction in district high schools was also improperly implemented, and the district will probably lose nearly $90,000.

August 29, 2007|Seema Mehta | Times Staff Writer

Class-size reduction was improperly implemented in Santa Ana high schools this past school year, according to an audit released Tuesday night. As a result, the audit found, the school district will lose nearly $90,000 in state funds.

The same flaws may have occurred the year before, costing the district as much as another $20,000, according to the audit by accounting firm Nigro, Nigro & White that was presented at Tuesday night's school board meeting.

The loss will be on top of the $2 million in state funding the Santa Ana Unified School District is losing for similar problems in its elementary schools this past year.

Board members said the revelations of discrepancies and funding loss had been painful learning experiences.

"We'd like to be perfect," board president Rob Richardson said, "but as long as humans are going to be involved, that's not going to the case. . . . We need to hold each other accountable to get things done."

Board member Audrey Yamagata-Noji proposed that in the future the district hire its own independent auditor rather than contracting with outside firms to review reimbursement programs for compliance with state and federal requirements.

The district is spending about $55,000 on a series of audits of various class-size reduction programs this year.

The elementary class-size problem was discovered after a series of Times articles revealed 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.

The loss stems from the district's failure to keep first-, second- and third-grade classes limited to an average of 20.4 students per teacher. The auditing firm recently began an investigation of whether similar problems occurred in the 2005-06 school year.

On Tuesday, auditors revealed the results of their look at ninth-grade class-size reduction in the 2006-07 school year. The district is entitled to receive $192 per pupil in freshman math or English classes when there are only 22 students or fewer per classroom.

But at Valley and Santa Ana high schools, the audit found, 467 special-education students who were being mainstreamed into about two dozen regular classes were not included on class rosters.

These students were on separate rosters maintained by special education teachers, who were supposed to be assisting them in the classroom but sometimes did not.

Because these students brought the total classroom enrollments to more than 22 students, the classes were not eligible for class-size reduction funding, so the district is losing $89,856, or nearly 8% of the state funding it expected to receive, auditor Christy White said.

The district is entitled to claim $1.2 million for the classes that were properly sized.

Doreen Lohnes, assistant superintendent in charge of special education, said she did not know why some special education teachers failed to assist in the regular classrooms to which they were assigned.

"They should have been," she said. "I can't explain it because it should have happened."

The district sought a waiver from the state that would have allowed a regular teacher and a special education teacher to teach in larger classes as long as the classroom averaged 22 students per teacher, but the state turned this down.

As a result, Lohnes and Supt. Jane Russo said that fewer special education students would be placed in the reduced-size classrooms in the future because of funding concerns.

Board member John Palacio said he was disheartened by this policy change.

"I'm disturbed to no end that special education students who are going to be part of the [mainstreaming] program will be warehoused in larger classrooms" when they would benefit from more personalized instruction, he said.

Auditors also found that similar discrepancies probably occurred during the 2005-06 school year, and recommended that the district review the classes for which it received state funding and resubmit documentation. The amount of money the district wrongly claimed is likely to be less than $20,000, according to the audit.

The audit states that the district must count mainstreamed special education students toward the 22 students-to-one-teacher cap. Additionally, it found that student databases were poorly kept, making it difficult to discern which classes were eligible for funding.

The audit also recommends closer review of attendance reports and keeping one roster per classroom.

Some of these record-keeping flaws echo what occurred in the elementary school class-size reduction program, costing the district $2 million. District officials have said those 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.

Auditors, however, found that this method didn't work because of poor instructions and inadequate monitoring by district administrators, a failure to hire enough substitutes and a lack of classroom space.

In July, White urged the school board to provide adequate staffing, monitor class sizes frequently and ensure that class rosters are accurately recorded.

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seema.mehta@latimes.com

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