The audit being constructed by the school district of its special education practices is fundamentally flawed and should not be allowed to proceed.
On December 3, a district committee is scheduled to select an outside auditor to conduct a comprehensive review of special education in SMMUSD as requested by City Council. More than half a million dollars of city money is being held in abeyance until the audit is completed. It is critical that the audit be authentic and that when it is concluded next spring it meets the requirements of the Council and the expectations of the community. As things stand, the process underway will not meet those requirements and expectations.
There are three reasons that the process now underway is bankrupt: First and foremost, the document drafted by district staff to elicit independent analysts to audit the special education department lacks the language needed to direct a true audit. Secondly, the outreach conducted by the district has failed to elicit serious applicants. And finally, the stakeholder committee assembled by the superintendent to select from among those applicants is dominated by district personnel, the very individuals it is intended to scrutinize.
Months ago the Special Education DAC [District Advisory Committee] recommended that the Board include language calling for an analysis of the use by special education administration of settlement agreements with gag orders, which have come to be known as “the secret deals.” Such deals were the main reason City Council requested an audit. Small changes were made, but the Board chose not to insert language that would require the district give the auditor the secret deals to review and analyze. Board member Ralph Mechur stated that he thought it was understood that the secret deals would be provided to the auditor. Board member Barry Snell, who is on the committee to select the auditor, stated when asked that he trusted and hoped the information would be shared with the auditor. And at a recent meeting of the Special Ed DAC, Board liaison Maria Leon Vazquez said that she thought the secret deals would be studied and analyzed. However, when Deputy Supt. Tim Walker was asked whether he understood that the settlement agreements were to be provided to the auditor, he responded by saying that no one had directed him to do so.
And with good reason, it seems. In fact the RFQ [Request For Qualifications] as written doesn’t require a true analysis of the settlement agreements. It only requires a broad review of the practice that could be accomplished the same way the Board has done it – by asking questions of Mr. Walker and letting him interpret the agreements. And it is Mr. Walker who brought the practice of offering gagged deals to the district and who I am told continues to write them.
Members of the Special Ed DAC have learned that there may be as few as three applicants to the district RFQ. Such a lack of response is not surprising. When the stakeholder committee gathered for its first meeting, it observed that there were very few actual applicants for the job. Because of this, members of the stakeholder committee were encouraged to send the RFQ to various firms. Several firms solicited in this fashion said they would not be applying because the time frame was too short and the RFQ was too broad. But there was another reason as well. Top firms do their homework, and they were familiar with news accounts of the centrality of the settlement agreements to this audit. Individuals heading two such firms who declined to apply explained that accessing information from a district’s staff is a difficult process, especially when the audit is being required by an outside agency as in this case. They spoke plainly in stating that the RFQ as it is written does not require an analysis of the secret deals.
And even if there were applicants, given the make-up of the stakeholder committee engaged in making the selection – more than half are paid staff – chances are the staff will be doing the choosing. Of the 17 members of the committee to select the auditor, nine are district employees, including special education staff. The only general education teacher named to the committee was not informed that she had been appointed and was consequently unable to attend the first meeting.
So much for hopes of transparency and accountability in SMMUSD special education. Despite the so-called moratorium, word is that secret deals continue to be written and the school district agendas continue to post the DN numbers – deals approved by the Board in closed session – but no dollar amount is written. (Although it is true that Board president Kathy Wisnicki has begun to announce the gross amounts as some sort of gesture to Councilmembers who expressed their amazement that the expenditures were not reported to the public.)
If the district were interested in conducting a successful audit by the deadline, the RFQ would need to be amended to narrow the broad survey currently sought and focus in with specific language of this intention, such as the following:
The audit shall assess whether the District’s settlement agreements for children with disabilities and the processes (including student IEPs) associated with the agreements are consistent with State and Federal policy and what the fiscal and programmatic impact such settlements have or may have. The District shall make available to the auditor two years or more of all documents, records, and data needed by the auditor. If it is necessary to protect the privacy of students and parents, the names of the students will be redacted from all copies of documents provided.
Further, a new posting of the RFQ would be needed.
Finally, the stakeholder committee would have to be expanded to bring a balance of interests into the selection process. Additional members should be drawn from the diverse populations of this community, including Latino parents of the ELAC and the business people in the Chamber of Commerce. Perhaps a couple of the local real estate agents should be asked to help.
What is at stake in this “audit” of special education is a great deal. Half a million dollars is at stake. But so is the public trust. A bogus audit will fool no one. A real audit could go a long way to providing a needed roadmap for the much-needed project of building educational infrastructure for our students with disabilities.