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Sunnyside School District will appeal audit finding

Officials in the Sunnyside School District are hopeful that an appeal of the recent finding of a state audit will result in no penalties to the district.

The situation will be explained to the school board at a meeting on Monday, Sept. 10, at 6 p.m. in the school district's board room.

The audit finding concerns the district's alternative learning experience program, which is operated by a private company, the American Academy, under the name NoDropouts.

According to the audit, the district did not comply with all the paperwork requirements under state and Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) guidelines, resulting in the district being overpaid more than $213,000 in state funding for the program.

District Superintendent Dr. Rick Cole says the problem resulted from onerous requirements for documentation that changed in 2009 and then again in 2011. NoDropouts did not meet those requirements during the time examined in the audit, Sept. 1, 2009 through Aug. 31, 2011.

"The rules and regulations that Washington state has put upon them has caused this to occur," said Cole. "However, we are ultimately responsible for the problem."

According to Cole, the difficulties are not unique to Sunnyside, and the American Academy is working with both the school district and OSPI to address the problems. Representatives from the company will be at Monday's meeting.

Karl Nelson, director of the digital learning department at OSPI, said that many districts contract with online providers. The providers go through a certification process, but that process does not look into how the providers document student learning.

While the district is ultimately responsible for making sure documentation is correct and meets the standards of the superintendent's office, the American Academy has offered to reimburse Sunnyside School District for any penalty caused by an error or omission by the company.

Cole also noted that the audit itself states that the district should "contact OSPI to determine how much funding, if any, should be repaid."

The inclusion of the words "if any" are a positive sign, said Cole, that the district may be able to rectify the situation by providing the required paperwork proving that the students received the instruction the district says they received.

School officials say they are very pleased with the American Academy's NoDropouts program in Sunnyside. The program has resulted in some students who had dropped out of school returning full time and other students completing their degrees, according to Sunnyside High School Assistant Principal Dave Martinez.

Cole said the district intends to continue using the NoDropouts program as Sunnyside schools continue to pursue a graduation rate of 100 percent.

The process of appealing the audit finding is expected to take between six to eight weeks, according to Cole. When the appeal is completed, the district hopes to face no financial penalty and have a stronger reporting process for students in alternative learning.

"Everybody is trying to fix it now," said Cole. "We're going to spend hours on this stuff."

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