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Santa Ana schools lose again

An error will cost the district $3.2 million. The loss comes after an earlier deduction of $2 million in state funds over class-size problems.

September 12, 2007|Ashley Powers and Seema Mehta | Times Staff Writers

The Santa Ana Unified School District, already hurting from the loss of $2 million in state aid because it botched its class-size reduction program, announced Tuesday it was going to lose an additional $3.2 million because it overstated the number of special education students enrolled in its summer school programs.

The erroneous tallies came to light after officials reviewed the district's state-funded programs following the discovery this spring of a series of problems with efforts to cut class sizes.

Supt. Jane Russo said the district was continuing to review how it does business. .

"While this type of self-assessment can be uncomfortable and at times even troubling, it also is a reflection of our district's commitment to do things right and to do the right thing," she said.

Tuesday's announcement is the latest financial blow to the beleaguered district, which this year cut $21 million in spending because of declining enrollment.

The irregularity took place during the 2005-06 school year, when two employees mistakenly multiplied the number of special education students participating in summer-school programs by 4.8, the number of hours a summer school student spends in class each day, said Don Trigg, associate superintendent of business services.

The district will not have to pay back the money but will receive $3.2 million less for the current school year, he said.

Officials are considering disciplinary action against those involved in the matter, Trigg said. The district also plans to hire a quality-control specialist to deal with state and federal program documentation and to move employees who handle accounting for such programs into the business services department.

Trigg said the $3.2-million loss would not result in further program cuts, because district officials were able to offset it with unspent funds.

The district, Orange County's largest with nearly 54,000 students, has a history of flubbing state programs.

This year, Santa Ana Unified lost $2 million because of problems in its class-size reduction program in elementary schools. The flaws were uncovered after a series of Times articles revealed that teachers at several 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.

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, in order to receive state money. An auditing firm recently began investigating whether similar problems occurred the year before.

Last month, auditors announced that class-size reduction efforts were also improperly implemented in two high schools, costing the district $90,000 for the 2006-07 school year, and as much as $20,000 for the previous year. Auditors found that 467 special-education students who were being moved into about two dozen regular classes were not included on class rosters.

In both instances, auditors faulted the district for shoddy bookkeeping and urged trustees to monitor class sizes frequently and to ensure that class rosters were accurately recorded.

These are losses to a district that has faced consecutive years of budget cuts largely caused by declining enrollment.

Santa Ana Unified saw strong population growth in the 1990s and is still building schools to relieve overcrowded classrooms. But the district has lost more than 6,000 students over the last four school years because of declining birthrates as well as rising housing costs that have forced families to move inland in search of affordable homes.

Meanwhile, spending on special education, employee benefits and other costs continue to rise.

Trustees have cut $79 million in spending since 2004 and are expected to cut an additional $19 million for the 2008-09 school year.

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seema.mehta@latimes.com

ashley.powers@latimes.com

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