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School board assured audit finding will be appealed

Sunnyside isn't the only school district in the state that is currently dealing with an audit finding in the most recent round of audit reports associated with accountability.

That's according to Dr. Rick Cole, superintendent of Sunnyside schools.

Last night (Monday) he told the Sunnyside School Board the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) has a stack of documents from various school districts across the state that are seeking remediation regarding recent auditor's reports.

"Not all the findings are the same," he said.

Rebekah Richards, founder and chief administrative officer for NoDropouts, agreed with Cole.

The Utah company provides alternative learning experience services to the school district, called American Academy. The company also serves several other districts in the state, including Grandview and East Valley.

Although not all the schools that use American Academy were audited this year, Richards said, "The findings haven't been consistent."

However, a search of the state auditor's records shows East Valley received the same findings as the Sunnyside School District, "The district lacked adequate controls over enrollment reporting for its Alternative Learning Experience (ALE) program, which resulted in an overpayment."

The East Valley School District was found to have been overpaid by $66,000, whereas the Sunnyside School District, according to the auditor's office, was overpaid more than $213,000.

Sunnyside School District Finance Director Jeff Loe said the auditor's office is claiming the school district reported students in its ALE program when the hours weren't properly tracked.

"Most of the findings were paperwork issues...the students took the classes, passed the classes and were claimed," he said, adding, "We feel we shouldn't be monetarily punished for paperwork errors when they can be corrected."

Sunnyside High School Assistant Principal Dave Martinez told the school board American Academy has been used as an intervention tool, helping students between the ages of 16 and 20.

He said the school district uses Amercian Academy, which consists of online classes overseen by a certified advocate, to help students "obtain credits without the walls of a classroom."

Martinez believes providing the program for students who have dropped out of school, providing the opportunity to either get back into the classroom or graduate, is imperative to educating Sunnyside's youth.

"It wasn't that the students weren't in the (online) class...it's that the classes didn't match the learning plans," Martinez said of one of the auditor's findings.

Richards said there have been changes to the laws since ALE programs were authorized by legislators.

"We have developed a warm spot for Sunnyside," she said, stating her company believes in the efforts of the school district to provide students with "overwhelming odds" an opportunity to obtain an education.

"Our kids have tremendous social barriers in their lives and the advocates spend a tremendous amount of time mentoring them," said Richards.

She said developing intervention programs address the needs for supporting student.

Because the auditor's office has issued the findings against school districts that point to proper documentation of student enrollment, Richards explained the issue to the school board.

She said most of the attendance and enrollment, as well as the student progress documentation was kept on electronic records.

The auditor's office, said Richards, expected to see paper documentation in the student files.

As a result, NoDropouts recently provided that paper documentation to the auditor's office with the hope that the auditor's office will retract its findings.

Addressing the findings that state the courses didn't match the learning plans, Richards said her company is in the process of remediation to show that the students were initially enrolled in introductory classes so they could start immediately.

She said the classes were adjusted to meet the students' needs once the transcripts were obtained.

"A monthly update was provided to the students, a list was stored in a database, but not in the paper file, which is where the auditors' were unable to review accurate and complete information," said Richards, stating documentation on actual courses provided to students has also been provided to the Washington State Auditor.

Cole said it may take up to eight weeks before OSPI is able to review the documentation and the auditor's findings related to the Sunnyside School District.

In the meantime, he assured the school board that the district is pleased with the achievements that have been made through the partnership with American Academy.

Cole said NoDropouts has offered to pick up the costs of any penalties if the findings are not retracted, but "...ultimately it is the school district's responsibility when we contract with any company."

School Board Director Rocky Simmons felt assured, and said, "Now that OSPI is involved there are steps being made to address the issue (of the findings)."

School Board Director Sandra Linde said she believes there is a bias against online learning, but is confident the findings will be remedied.

Cole said, "The district is happy with this program and believes in the partnership."

Martinez agreed, stating "The students are always viewed as Sunnyside's students and the program is not gleaning students from the school district."

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