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Class-size program to be audited

Times Staff Writer

Independent auditors will examine Santa Ana Unified School District’s class-size reduction program, an investigation prompted by a Times report that the district falsified documents and misused substitute teachers in an effort to retain state funding earmarked for small kindergarten through third-grade classes.

While the district will pay for the audit, the state and county departments of education, which oversee the class-size reduction program and the district’s finances, respectively, will monitor the results.

“I’m extremely concerned,” 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. The legislation calls for an average ratio of 20 students per teacher in each classroom. “This appears to be contrary to the intent of my bill and our law.”

In the current school year, 54,800-student Santa Ana Unified was expected to receive about $16 million in additional funding through the class-size reduction program, which was designed to help schools maintain small classes in kindergarten through third grade, according to the California Department of Education.

A Times article published Wednesday recounted how the district’s attempt to meet the 20-students-per-teacher cap resulted in the creation of false class rosters and the misuse of substitute teachers. The crowded classrooms were caused, in part, when class sizes hadn’t shrunk as expected.

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The situation came to light after eight teachers at Washington Elementary School were alarmed by requests to sign attendance rosters that omitted several of their students.

Documents revealed that school officials created a fictitious second-grade roster of 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 was assigned to the nonexistent class, but several teachers at the school said she spent only a few hours over the last month in each classroom instructing students on her roster. District officials said this week that the problems were caused by a shortage of substitute teachers who were supposed to “team teach” with full-time teachers.

State officials contacted the district Wednesday about The Times’ story, and were told that district administrators planned to launch an audit by an independent firm. Attempts on Wednesday to reach Santa Ana Unified administrators about the audit, its scope, cost and timeline were unsuccessful.

On Wednesday, the district released a statement that said it would address teachers’ concerns and conduct an audit. It also said that “at no time have false rosters been submitted to the state.”

At a meeting Wednesday afternoon at Washington Elementary, district officials told about 45 teachers and staff that the district would correct attendance rosters to accurately reflect the number of students that were in teachers’ classrooms, according to a teacher who attended the meeting and asked not to be identified for fear of retribution.

The class-size reduction documentation is due to the state May 4, said Lynn Piccoli, who runs the $1.8-billion class-size reduction program for the California Department of Education.

The district has already received $4.3 million of the $16 million it expected to receive this year in class-size reduction funds. The remainder normally would have been released this summer, Piccoli said.

Santa Ana’s share of the funds will depend on what the audit reveals, said Piccoli, who added that she had never encountered such allegations. “This is new territory,” she said. “It’s still very early. Right now, it’s kind of wait and see.”

Board members, who were briefed about the allegations Tuesday, said it’s important that the district comply with state guidelines.

“We want to make sure that folks are following the rules as they’re laid out,” said board President Rob Richardson. “If the practices were more widespread than one school, we need to know that and take steps to correct it, and we will.”

Board member John Palacio questioned if there were other instances of administrators allegedly manipulating data to increase revenue.

“I do not support the district administration asking our employees to alter public documents in order to receive extra public funds,” Palacio said. “This is mismanagement of public funds and fraud.... We are also cheating our students in the classroom whose parents are being misled into believing that classes are being made smaller to improve academic performance.”

But board member Audrey Yamagata-Noji countered that she thought any missteps were the result of good intentions that went awry.

“I would not categorize this as an intentional act to create phantom classrooms to rip off the state,” she said. “Our understanding of what was acceptable probably faltered in some of our oversight. I also am unsure of whether this is rampant across the district; this may not be. It was all done for the right reasons: to try to keep class size down and to keep as much teacher-to-student attention as possible.”

Yamagata-Noji was among several district officials who said this week that they wished the teachers would have approached school or district staff or trustees with their concerns, rather than the media.

Union President David Barton characterized such statements as disingenuous.

After receiving calls from concerned teachers in four district schools, Barton said he asked district officials more than two weeks ago to provide a legal justification for the practice and has yet to receive a response. He said the union plans to consult its attorneys about the matter.

seema.mehta@latimes.com


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