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L.A. Unified faults costs of the independent monitor overseeing programs for disabled students

L.A. Unified faults costs of the independent monitor overseeing programs for disabled students
A program in the Larchmont neighborhood for L.A. Unified students with disabilities that include visual impairment. (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times)

An independent monitor whom the Los Angeles Unified School District has to pay to watch over its programs for disabled students is under fire from the school district for alleged poor oversight of his own office, including the rising costs of two consultants, each earning more than $200,000 a year.

David Rostetter was brought in to observe the school district's actions and make sure that it meets certain goals. The relationship between his office and the school system has sometimes been tense; one of his recent reports said L.A. Unified lacked appropriate and sanitary conditions for changing the diapers of preschoolers who had to wear them.

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The district had auditors look over Rostetter's records, officials said, because monitoring costs were going up — even though the school system has met 17 of 18 goals specified in a legally binding commitment to improve services for the disabled.

"There is a lack of proper checks and balances to prevent, deter and detect errors and misappropriations. The risk is exacerbated by a lack of oversight," auditors wrote.

Rostetter has denied allegations of mismanagement and accused the auditors of an incomplete or misguided interpretation of what they found. But he also has agreed to change some of his office's key practices.

Programs for the disabled in the nation's second-largest school system fell under federally authorized supervision, called a consent decree, in the wake of a 1993 lawsuit that contended the district ignored the educational needs of Chanda Smith and many other disabled students.

In the more than 20 years since, the district has tried to satisfy a federal judge and advocates for the disabled. An independent monitor joined the mix in 2003, when the two sides agreed on specific goals that, if met, would free the district of supervision some officials consider costly and obtrusive.

The district has identified 12.6% of its more than half a million students as disabled, and says about a third have moderate to severe disabilities and so are more expensive to serve. It spends $1.54 billion annually on special services for the disabled.

The audit of Rostetter's office, which was released this week, focused in large measure on his management of the office and the work of his two senior consultants, research director Jaime Hernandez and chief analyst Jay R. Alleman, during a four-year period, starting with the 2012-13 fiscal year.

Hernandez was paid about $239,000 for the first two years, then more than $280,000 the next two years; Alleman about $195,000 the first two years, and $268,089 in the fourth for pay and expenses, according to the district.

Their increased compensation accounted for most of the rise in expenses, from $713,126 to $849,710, over the four years.

Rostetter, who lives out of state, is paid $255,000 annually and also filed $30,760 in expenses and additional fees last year.

Auditors questioned his supervision of the employees, pointing out that he let them work outside of the office space provided at district headquarters and asserting that he lacked adequate documentation for the tasks they performed. Alleman, they said, was "free to issue checks to any party without anyone's knowledge." That included checks to himself.

Auditors recommended, among other measures, that the district's legal office take over writing the checks.

"Because of our duty to safeguard public funds, [we] must ensure the reimbursed costs are 'reasonable,' despite our limited ability to deny payment," district general counsel David Holmquist said in a statement Wednesday.

Rostetter initially pushed back hard. In a December response that was incorporated into the final report, he said the auditors reached "conclusions based on conjecture and speculation" and made recommendations that would "infringe" on his independence.

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This week, in a letter to the district, he softened his tone, pledging to address the concerns. He said he would assume direct control over spending and insist on more complete documentation. Rostetter could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

In an interview, Hernandez acknowledged that costs have risen, but he said that some of the problem relates to the district's malfunctioning student records system. The decree requires effective tracking of services to the disabled.

Hernandez added that as long as the decree is in place, its 18 goals require ongoing review. He said the district also has yet to complete a full plan to comply with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.

"Before we leave, we have to make sure the district can monitor itself and identify and remedy non-compliance," Hernandez said. "We need to see that the right systems are in place. It's getting there."

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