Santa Ana accused of creating phantom classes for state funds

Times Staff Writers

Santa Ana Unified School District administrators created false class rosters and misused substitute teachers to qualify for state funding earmarked for small classes for elementary students, according to eight teachers, school documents and state officials.

At Washington Elementary School, for instance, documents reveal that school officials created a second-grade roster showing students in a class that didn't exist. The phantom classroom diluted 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 at Washington Elementary was assigned to the nonexistent class. Several teachers said she only spent a few hours over the last month in each classroom instructing students on her roster. Since then, school officials said, she has been assigned to cover full time for a teacher on medical leave and no longer visits the classes.

State officials said the district's actions appeared illegal -- even if substitute teachers were used for part of the day -- and plan to launch an investigation.

"That would clearly be a blatant attempt to violate the intent of the law," said Jack O'Connell, the state superintendent of public instruction who wrote the class-size reduction legislation in 1996 as a member of the state Senate. "We make it real clear to schools that they need to make sure they have 20 students to a class."

District officials defended the practice that they have put in place in 25 elementary schools, saying substitute teachers "team teach" a couple hours per day with classroom teachers -- which they said is a legal way to ensure that the district retains its class-size reduction funds. The money is vital for struggling students, administrators said.

"It's a priority for the board to keep [the program] in place, because we have a majority of non-English-speaking students," said Supt. Jane A. Russo. "We have to prioritize our efforts to get them speaking and writing English by the third grade. It's a must so they can continue to learn."

In the current school year, the 54,800-student district is expected to receive about $16 million through the state's class-size reduction program, which was designed to help schools maintain small classes in kindergarten through third grade, according to the state Department of Education.

At Washington Elementary, eight teachers said in interviews that school administrators asked them to sign class rosters that show they had significantly fewer students than were assigned to their classrooms. Second-grade teachers Alma Olivares, Sahara Green, Donna Araujo, Christina Moreno and Rose Copes, third-grade teachers Eugenia Pedraza and Olga Escobar, and first-grade teacher Eva Zamarripa said students' names were deleted from their rosters, but they have continued to teach these children, sign their report cards and meet with their parents.

"I'm teaching them," said Olivares, who had four children removed from her roster. "They're in my class. They're my responsibility."

Since the new district policy was enacted about a month ago, several Washington teachers said they had refused to sign the new rosters.

"If I sign it, I'm agreeing to the lie," Araujo said.

Despite the teachers' objections at Washington Elementary, four students were removed from Olivares' roster, five from Araujo's, one from Green's, three from Moreno's and two from Copes'. The names of those students and six others were moved to a new class roster belonging to a teacher identified as "Staff 20," whose classroom was listed as Room 230, school documents said. That room already housed a fourth-grade class. Students on the "Staff 20" roster have never been together as a class.

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