Amid DOE accusations, school board’s chairman calls for audit of home-school records

According to a new audit, the School District of Manatee County improved its record-keeping after a visit from state investigators, who accused the district’s current superintendent, Cynthia Saunders, of inflating graduation rates between 2014 and 2016. Still, questions remain.

On Dec. 17, six days after the accusations surfaced and the school board delayed a vote on Saunders’ long-term contract, the board’s chairman made a request. Dave Miner asked Carr, Riggs and Ingram, the district’s internal auditor, to analyze student withdrawals and the related paperwork, said Susan Agruso, chair of the district’s volunteer Audit Committee.

When Saunders joined the school district as its executive director of secondary schools in 2013, she told administrators to code students as “withdrawn to home education” if they dropped out to pursue a GED, which inflated the district’s past graduation rates, according to a state report.

It was drafted by the Office of the Inspector General, a division of the Florida Department of Education, and it paraphrased an interview with Saunders, a deputy superintendent at the time. Saunders said she learned the process during her time in Marion County schools.

“If we are not following the right guidelines, we will correct that,” the report states, quoting Saunders.

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In December, Miner requested a follow-up from the district’s internal auditors, who then contacted the Audit Committee for authorization, Agruso said.

Carr, Riggs and Ingram spent approximately 90 hours collecting and analyzing documents throughout the county, visiting the Office of Student Assignment, the district’s high schools and Horizons Academy, which offers an alternative education program. On Thursday, they presented a draft report to the Audit Committee.

A “letter of intent” is required for students who leave a traditional campus to enter home school. The letter is signed by the student’s family, or by students who are at least 18 years old.

Auditors first reviewed seniors who were in graduation “cohorts” for the 2016-17 and 2017-18 school years, regardless of what year they withdrew to home school. The state DOE defines a cohort as “a group of students on the same schedule to graduate.”

Of the 369 students who withdrew in 2016-17, one had no letter of intent, and two were missing files in the student assignment office. Of the 349 students who withdrew to home school in 2017-18, one had no letter of intent, and another was missing his or her file, according to the audit.

Auditors then reviewed all K-12 students who withdrew to home school in the 2016-17 and 2017-18 school years. Out of 277 students who withdrew between the two years, a total of four were missing the signed letter of intent.

Byron Shinn is the partner-in-charge at Carr, Riggs and Ingram. Speaking at Thursday’s meeting, he said home-school documentation has improved over the last several years.

But past years were not included in the report, so the level of improvement is unclear.

“If you’re going to make a statement about how that compares, you really should have data there to do that,” Agruso said.

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The auditors’ special project was solely focused on whether students had a signed letter of intent for home education. However, missing or incomplete documentation was only a portion of the state’s investigation.

“You have not followed up to see, were these kids really home-schooled?” said Mary Foreman, a member of the Audit Committee. “I don’t think this proves what you want it to prove.”

According to the state’s report, seniors who dropped out to pursue a GED were often coded as “withdrawn to home education,” with the letter of intent to match.

“They (students) should be encouraged to sign up for Home School, with the intent to take their GED,” the report states, referencing a 2016 email by the district’s senior report specialist, Paula Nigrelli. “You should try to have them complete the ‘Letter of Intent to Home Educate.’ ”

“Ms. Stinton stated that if a student wanted to get their GED, she would have a parent sign a letter of intent for home education,” the report continued, citing a registrar at Palmetto High School.

It seems investigators were more concerned with the improper labeling of GED and home-school students, which require different codes when reporting to the state. It’s unclear why students would have a letter of intent if they had no intention of home schooling, but it’s possible some were confused or uninformed.

“Mr. Lundeen stated that the parents probably did not fully understand what they were doing,” state investigators reported, citing an interview with the district’s student assignment supervisor.

“She stated that parents had complained to her that they felt they had to sign the home education form in order to withdraw their student, even though they had no intention to home school their student,” the report continued, referencing interviews with the choice program specialist, Alicia Carrillo.

After reviewing the audit report by Carr, Riggs and Ingram, the Audit Committee recommended a follow-up report. Agruso commended the auditors for their work, and she underscored the need for more information.

“The follow-up is, are they actually in home school?” Agruso said during the meeting.