Auditors question Manatee home-school records after state investigation

A recent audit found that hundreds of people enrolled as home-school students after their exit from the School District of Manatee County between 2016 and 2018, but the majority of students never followed up with the school district after their first year.

The district’s home-school records first came under fire in 2016, when the Florida Department of Education launched an investigation through its Office of the Inspector General. As previously reported, the state reviewed 121 students who were withdrawn to home school in the 2014-2015 school year, finding that only six were verified home-schoolers, leading to an inflated graduation rate.

Superintendent Cynthia Saunders accepted a settlement agreement earlier this year, neither admitting nor denying her role in the state’s findings. Those sanctions are still awaiting final approval by the Education Practices Commission, but a review of the settlement agreement, scheduled for Wednesday in Seminole County, was canceled as Hurricane Dorian approached.

Checking for improvements and gaps after the state investigation, the school district’s internal auditor — Carr, Riggs and Ingram — focused on the two school years following 2014-2015, the year questioned by state officials. Auditors reviewed the 2016-2017 school year, the same year investigators arrived in Manatee County, and they reviewed the 2017-2018 school year.

The recent audit found that 71 percent of student files had no evidence of an annual review during the two years in question.

Don Sauer, the district’s supervisor of student demographics, projections and assignment, said parents are responsible for submitting the annual paperwork. The district can do a better job of communicating that need to families, he continued, noting that reminders are a courtesy and not a requirement under state law.

Auditors published the results in a July 16 report, and the district presented solutions at Thursday’s meeting of the Audit Committee. Auditors noted a lack of consistent oversight, and the district responded with plans to modernize and improve its home-school records.

Of the 715 students who withdrew to home school in 2016-2017 and 2017-2018, about 71 percent had no annual review in their file, meaning district officials had no way to verify the students’ participation in home school, auditors found.

And while the district often sent a reminder to parents and guardians about the need for an annual review, that wasn’t always the case. Between the two school years in question, a total of 509 students were missing evidence of a review, and of those files, 263 were missing the annual reminder to families.

They should have been noticed,” Sauer recently said. “And again, that is a district courtesy, but because we’ve done some of them, we should have done all of them.”

While most students had a signed “letter of intent,” documenting their transfer to home school, dozens had “evidence of other education” paths in their file, according to the audit.

Of the 369 students who transferred to home school in the 2016-2017 school year:

  • 59 pursued a GED program.
  • 28 entered Florida Virtual School.
  • 51 returned to a physical school.

Of the 346 students who transferred to home school in the 2017-2018 school year:

  • 95 pursued a GED program.
  • 36 entered Florida Virtual School.
  • 19 returned to a physical school.

“It is apparent from the evidence noted above that the District does not have adequate controls in place to verify Home School classification,” the report states. “The policies and procedures are in place but not being consistently followed.”

“We had to trace student records to verify the GED, Virtual School and return to physical school,” it continues. “Proper oversight needs to be addressed.”

In light of recent findings, the school district reassigned Lisa Jones, an existing employee, to oversee the home-school program. She reviews documents on a daily basis and follows up with the state on a monthly basis, Sauer said at Thursday’s committee meeting.

He also noted future plans to digitize Manatee’s paper records, and to ensure greater communication with parents.

Scrutiny of Manatee’s home-school records followed the state’s 2016 investigation. The district was previously coding students as if they withdrew to home school when they actually left to pursue a GED, according to the state’s investigation.

Saunders introduced the process in 2013-2014, after she was hired as the executive director of secondary education. According to a past statement from her attorney, Saunders learned the practice in Marion County, and she was never warned about the downfalls.

The state first notified Saunders of its concerns in 2016, when she served as the deputy superintendent of instruction. She then ordered an audit of the district’s home-school records and promised an overhaul of the system.

“Saunders stated that due to the audit findings, there was more emphasis by the district to track students and require proper documentation,” the state reported.

The state’s former education commissioner, Pam Stewart, put Saunders on notice in a December 2018 letter, accusing her of violating two Florida Statutes and five sections of the Florida Administrative Code. She had recently been named the interim superintendent, and the letter stalled a vote on Saunders’ long-term contract for about two months.

Less than a week later, school board Chairman Dave Miner requested an audit of the district’s home-school records. Carr, Riggs and Ingram found that Manatee’s paperwork had vastly improved, with nearly all students and families signing a “letter of intent” during their withdrawal to home school.

Auditors reviewed documents from the 2016-2017 and 2017-2018 school years, focusing solely on whether each student had a signed letter to accompany their home-school status.

But state investigators were also concerned about whether students actually participated in home school, even after they signed a “letter of intent.” Hoping to answer that question, the school district’s Audit Committee then asked Carr, Riggs and Ingram to follow up on the annual evaluations, leading to the updated report.

Despite signing letters to withdraw, it’s unclear whether a majority of students progressed in home school. In the 2016-2017 school year, 263 out of 369 files were missing evidence of an annual review, while 15 had “partial evidence.”

In the 2017-2018 school year, 246 out of 346 files were missing the annual review, while three contained “partial evidence.”

Speaking at an Audit Committee meeting last month, Sauer pointed to Statute 1002.41, the law that governs home-school programs in Florida. He said parents are required to submit their child’s annual review, and the school district has few rights when it comes to oversight.

A school district may not further regulate, exercise control over, or require documentation from parents of home education program students beyond the requirements of this section unless the regulation, control, or documentation is necessary for participation in a school district program,” the law states.

“We are not allowed to dig into home-school families,” Sauer previously said. “There is a home-school coalition that has attorneys, and they sue districts all the time, so we follow the statute.”

As the supervisor of student demographics, projections and assignment, Sauer oversees the new home-school supervisor. They recently contacted families and students who failed to submit an annual review, prompting a response from home-school advocates, Sauer said.

“We kind of opened up Pandora because now we’ve got the Sarasota home-school coalition calling us, because the parents feel we’re getting into their business a little,” Sauer said at Thursday’s committee meeting.

“I kind of told her what we were going through, and that we’re trying to make sure we give information, not dictate anything,” he continued. “We want to give information and then also make sure we are in compliance with the state.”