St. Louis Public Schools is working toward or has already put in place a string of recommendations laid out in a state audit issued in September last year.
That’s the big takeaway from a follow-up report released today from the Missouri Auditor’s Office.
“We felt the district was committed to improving in almost every area,” said state Auditor Tom Schweich. “They’re improving their procedures for testing, they’re improving their procedures for contracting and they’re improving their procedures for promotion of students. I think it’s very encouraging and I’m optimistic about the future.”
There’s work left to do. Eleven out of 16 areas for improvement received a grade of “in progress,” meaning the district has started or intends to put the audit's recommendations in place. The district has already implemented recommendations for improvement four areas. They included business practices and making minutes from closed session meetings available to the public. One area, monitoring state test results, was graded as “partially implemented.”
A key finding in the original audit was that “at-risk” students were being promoted to the next grade even if they weren’t meeting academic standards. To comply with state law, the district has taken steps to fix the problem. They include reading assessments for first through eighth graders and individual plans for helping students who are reading below their current grade level.
“We were already doing some of what was requested,” said Superintendent Kelvin Adams. “We were not, quite frankly, aware of the law as it related to the SAB (Special Administrative Board). We were doing that for all third- and fourth-grade students, but not all students in grades Kindergarten through eighth grade. The law requires Kindergarten through eighth grade for a transitional district with an SAB. Based on that information, we are doing it.”
All the steps listed in SLPS’ plan for student promotion won’t be completed until June, earning the district a mark of “in progress” in the follow up.
“You can be looking for us identifying students who need help and providing help to those students in a documented way,” Adams said.
To help students who have fallen behind academically, Adams said that the district will put a greater emphasis on enrolling them in summer school for additional instruction.
Getting fiscal house in order
The district will also keep a closer eye on attendance data reported to the state and repay the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) $145,000 in funding it received based on faulty numbers collected at Henry Elementary School.
Overall business practices are being shored up, as well.
"There was a lack of competitive bidding, there was sole source contracting, there was a lack of written contracts. It was a sloppy process and they’ve cleaned it up very, very well,” Schweich said.
Administrators could transition toward relying more on in-house legal services, saving around $500,000 annually, according to the report. But the district says those plans are on hold until the state Board of Education decides on the tenure of current Special Administrative Board members, which run out in June.
The report also found that school officials are documenting a larger strategy that ensures its financial house is kept in order during the coming years, which was recommended in the audit.
In 2011, the district reached a settlement with the state on school desegregation litigation, which provided the district with money to eliminate its deficit balance along with an additional $40.2 million in revenue. But the money runs out in June, and that could put school officials in a fiscal pinch. Under a new policy, the goal is to keep a minimum amount of money in the district’s general fund. If it gets too low, the SAB has to build the fund back over the next 12 to 24 months.
“From a dollars and cents perspective, we were already putting some of those things in place, so we documented for the auditor that we were already doing some of those things,” Adams said.
Moving forward, Adams said district officials will continue to meet with officials from the auditor’s office every two weeks.
“We can’t solve all of the problems, there are historic problems that have been in place for years and years and years,” Adams said. “What we’re trying to do is respond when we find out things are broken. That’s what parents can know, is that we try and do our best with the resources that we have to respond to things that are not working appropriately.”
The only “partially implemented” recommendation called for the district’s Special Administrative Board (SAB) to monitor and investigate irregular test results on the annual Missouri Assessment Program exams.
SLPS reached out through the St. Louis Assessment Resource Association to get an idea how other districts are following up on testing irregularities.
“Of the 30 districts that responded most indicated they review test results and drill down after results are received; however, no districts reported a method for conducting investigations based on those results,” according to the district’s status update listed in the audit. “District officials indicated they will implement a proactive process to identify and review unusual testing occurrences for the spring 2014 MAP testing, and plan to use this analysis for instructional planning purposes, but they currently do not plan to perform investigations of unusual occurrences unless directed to do so by the DESE.”
Read the complete follow up report here. Below is a summary for some key points in the audit and status updates.
Student Promotion and Retention: District policies and procedures regarding the promotion and retention of "at-risk" students were not fully compliant with state law. The audit recommends SAB comply with its student retention policy and monitor district policies and procedures related to student promotion and retention.
- Status is in progress: The district has conducted reading assessments for students in grades 1-8 to determine reading levels and developed Individual Academic Plans for those students not reading at least one level below grade level. Completion of all action steps is expected by June 30.
Financial Condition: Money from a legal settlement with the state on desegregation litigation runs out in June, which could lead to fiscal problems. The audit recommends that the SAB closely monitor the district's financial condition due to the pending reduction in funding and take appropriate actions as necessary.
- Status is implemented: The district approved a fund balance policy with a goal of achieving an unrestricted fund balance in the General Fund equal to 10 percent of the overall expenditures in the General and Teachers Funds. If the unrestricted fund balance should fall below 3 percent, the SAB will develop a plan to build back up the unrestricted fund balance back within 12 to 24 months.
Educational Programs: The district had not adequately evaluated numerous educational programs to determine their impact on student achievement. The audit recommends that the SAB identify and put a system in place for evaluating all academic programs.
- Status is in progress: The district accountability office will perform selected evaluations, due by Sept. 30.
Inaccurate attendance data from Henry Elementary: The district had not fully implemented all audit report recommendations cited in an audit in 2011 that found attendance data at the school was falsified. The audit recommends that the district continue to monitor attendance data from the school.
- Status is in progress: The district is quantifying the discrepancies noted in the audit, and the SAB has approved authorization to repay the state up to $145,000. The district has also formed an “attendance committee” to review attendance data on a weekly basis.