Melrose schools tagged for audit

The Associated Press

Vowing to change what she described as a “systemic issue,” Education Secretary-designate Hanna Skandera said Wednesday that a preliminary review showed serious flaws in special education data reported by school districts statewide.

Nine of the 34 districts targeted this month for review by the Public Education Department will be subjected to an intensive, outside audit in coming months, Skandera said. Albuquerque Public Schools is not among them.

The cost of that audit wasn’t clear Wednesday.

Las Cruces Public Schools is among the nine facing an outside audit, and four other districts, including Santa Fe, were cited for “major compliance issues.” The remaining districts were either clean or had minor compliance issues — with Albuquerque in the “minor” category.

“If we look at these initial findings, we have a systemic issue here in the state of New Mexico,” Skandera said at a news conference Wednesday evening. “We will not continue forward with shoddy reporting across the board.”

Skandera had called for a review of special education enrollment numbers earlier this month, prompted by an increase in “funding units.” These units funnel money to districts based on factors including poverty, special education and teacher experience. There are about 7,900 more units projected for next year than in the current year.

The issues uncovered by the review include misidentifying special education students and providing unusually high rates of special education services, according to a memo from Skandera to superintendents.

Skandera said additional review will determine whether she decides to possibly withhold state funding or freeze the districts’ budgets.

Districts besides Las Cruces facing an outside audit are Gallup, Grants, Espanola, Cobre, Alamogordo, Melrose, Pojoaque and Taos. In a letter distributed to districts, Skandera wrote that these were responsible for about $11 million of the $18 million in school funding being audited.

Las Cruces Superintendent Stan Rounds said Wednesday night that he was told his district’s issues center around services provided to developmentally delayed preschool students. Rounds said he was still not sure of details of the PED’s findings and was adamant his district is not fraudulently reporting services.

“What I want to emphasize is that we’re providing the services,” Rounds said. “We’re not reporting services and then not providing them. Now, if we’re providing more services than we should or overdiagnosing students in transitioning them (from private preschool), that’s another matter.”

Rounds said his district pulled about 500 special education files for the team of three PED reviewers. His district also pulled the “service logs” kept by speech therapists and other providers.

Rounds said although the major concerns highlighted by Skandera were with preschool, reviewers also found problems with timeliness. He acknowledged his district falls behind in annual evaluations of bilingual students, and he said he has found this problem through past internal audits.

Santa Fe Superintendent Bobbie Gutierrez, whose district was in the less severe category, said she disagreed that her district has “major compliance issues,” but she said she will work with the PED.

“Even though the state says it’s major compliance issues, I have a little bit of difficulty with that statement — but OK,” Gutierrez said.

Gutierrez said her understanding of the problem, based on a preliminary conversation with Skandera, is that reviewers found discrepancies in five special education files between the services students were receiving and the services they were supposed to receive. Gutierrez said state officials reviewed about 200 of her district’s special education files. Gutierrez said she was also told reviewers found problems in the way students with special needs were diagnosed — using teachers’ professional judgment instead of a standardized method.

Other districts with issues that are “major” but not severe enough to face an outside audit are Cimarron, Dulce and Tucumcari.

APS Superintendent Winston Brooks said he was told reviewers found two special education students classified as having more severe needs than reviewers believed the students actually had. PED reviewers examined files on about 50 students in APS.

Department officials are expected to follow up with districts in the coming weeks, although final findings of the outside audit might not be available until September or October. That audit will be conducted by a Utah State University research center with a focus on special education.

“This is not a 10-day endeavor,” Skandera said of the additional audits. “This is a serious, in-depth look at these nine districts.”

The PED will also launch a review of enrollment figures reported by charter schools, Ska ndera sa id. Cha r ter schools will be notified by Friday if they are the subject of an initial review.