Two Former New Orleans Charter Principals Exploited SPED Students for Money, Among Other Issues
The Louisiana Department of Education (LDOE) does not systematically and regularly audit its state-run schools. No entity does. In fact, the only way for an audit to happen is via whistleblowing– for some irregularity to be brought (often) first to public attention– and then the state or the Recovery School District (RSD) might step into action.
But not until fraud has already been perpetrated.
LDOE and RSD are fine with this tipster-induced means of “accountability.”
Those who drool to emulate New Orleans’ RSD ought to dry their chins and take note.
Below is the story of a New Orleans charter school, ReNew SciTech Academy, and how two principals, Tim Hearin and Alex Perez– who abruptly resigned in May 2015– cheated on tests and inflated special education funding so that their school would get more state funding, a better school grade, and impress an outside funder.
(For readers wanting more, see nola.com writer Danielle Dreilinger’s excellent account.)
On January 29, 2016, LDOE sent this 88-page report to ReNew Board Chair Brian Weimer. Here is how the report begins:
Dear Mr. Weimer,
This letter represents a Notice of Breach of the Charter School Performance Compact for failure to comply with several Special Education critical indicators as outlined below and committed violations related to state testing procedures.
On June 1st, 2015, the Louisiana Department of Education (LDE) was made aware that SciTech Academy’s Head of School and the Principal had resigned amid allegations of cheating on internal assessments. On June 3rd, 2015, the Board Chair of ReNEW – Reinventing Education (ReNEW) sent a letter to LDE officials discussing two possible testing violations related to state assessments. Additionally, on June 3rd, the former CEO of ReNEW Schools publicly stated that, in addition to issues with internal and state assessments, an internal investigation into special education programming at SciTech revealed additional areas of concern.
On June 12th, 2015 the LDE informed the Board Chair and former CEO that the LDE would be conducting a formal review of any potential testing irregularities and IDEA-related concerns at ReNEW SciTech Academy (STA). Since that time, the LDE conducted three on-site Special Education student file reviews, collected data from various state databases, conducted nearly 20 interviews with several current and former staff members, and reviewed over 250 internal emails and school documents. This in-depth review resulted in a comprehensive report detailing the findings, enclosed with this letter.
The individual signing the letter, Laura Hawkins, included no formal title with her signature. This RSD page offers no details other than to give Hawkins the title, “deputy chief of staff.” Google results reveal that in August and December 2015, Hawkins was simply referred to as RSD “spokesperson.”
So, the mysterious Laura Hawkins is put forward as the name on the ReNew STA investigative report. Even so, the report does have teeth.
A summary of the findings of the investigation:
The LDE review of special education and testing administration at STA from August 2014 – June 2015 revealed four primary findings. These findings are limited to ReNEW STA and limited to the 2014-15 school year.
I. ReNEW STA inappropriately obtained funds;
II. ReNEW STA failed to comply with multiple aspects of federal IDEA law including failure to provide Free and Appropriate Education (FAPE) to students with disabilities;
III. ReNEW STA committed a violation of testing procedure in the 2014-15 school year; and
IV. Internal processes at ReNEW failed to identify and address these violations.
And now, for some details:
I. STA inappropriately adopted and modified student IEPs to justify staffing counts through ReNEW’s internal budgeting process for the 2014-15 school year.
During planning for the 2014-15 school year, STA over budgeted by approximately $300,000.00 according to internal budgets. Former school leadership used two tactics to inappropriately enhance the school’s budget to make up for the unfunded expenditures. First, the school manipulated the number of service minutes outlined in the Individualized Education Program (IEPs) for 49 students with disabilities in order to justify its proposed staffing model to ReNEW leadership during the budgeting process by leading leadership to believe that the school was entitled to more funding than it actually was. Additional state funds are provided for students requiring more service minutes, which supports schools serving students diagnosed with exceptionalities that have historically been more costly.
Additionally, STA attempted to identify new special education students before the official IDEA student count, taken on February 1, 2015, by rushing students through the Response to Intervention (RtI) process in order to evaluate and identify students as having a disability. The RtI process is a multi-tiered approach to the early identification and support of students with learning and behavior needs that utilizes several research-based interventions, increasing in intensity, across a span of time in order to identify struggling learners and tailor support to these learners both through the use of regular education interventions or eventual special education referral. Students newly identified prior to this date would result in additional funds for the school through the differentiated funding formula. …
In amending IEPs such that students would qualify for increased funding, STA secured approximately $180,000.00 in additional funding. An email from Employee A at STA stated that “all of our kids are going to have their minutes amended at the start of the school year for academic minutes.” Employee A then states that STA leadership was requesting information regarding the impact that these increased minutes would have on the school’s budget because there were teachers who might possibly be laid off if additional funding was not secured. Members of the schools leadership team were considering adding services to students’ IEPs to move them to higher funding tiers. …
The creation of these 16 IEPs resulted in an additional $137,800.00 in special education funding for ReNEW STA.
STA had originally planned to rapidly push as many students through the evaluation process as possible in the month of January because school leadership had communicated that “thousands of dollars are on the line.”
II. ReNEW STA failed to comply with multiple aspects of federal IDEA law including failure to provide Free and Appropriate Education (FAPE) to students with disabilities.
Most students with disabilities were not provided their full number of service minutes nor their full scope of services as outlined in their IEPs. …
Additionally, STA leadership claimed to staff their school with special education teachers. However, documents obtained suggest that these teachers may not have been focused on educating the special education students in the school.
On August 4, 2014, ReNEW’s central office requested that STA provide a list of individuals that were to be specifically special education teachers or paraprofessionals (Appendix C, Email 8). STA responded with the names of twenty-five individuals. When compared to data obtained through the Louisiana Profile of Educational Personnel (PEP) database, of the 25 people designated by STA as special education staff, only information for five teachers were reported to the PEP database, all of which were coded as regular education teachers and not specific to the special education program.
Many of these teachers were unaware that they were filling the role of special educators and these individuals were expected to do nothing different than those teachers that were considered regular education teachers.
III. ReNEW STA committed a procedural testing violation during the 2014-15 school year.
A procedural testing violation occurred at STA during the 2014-15 school year, in which the school leadership requested that teachers review secure testing materials in violation of policy. ReNew leadership self-reported these violations to the Department. Additionally, student retention and promotion decisions were made with the intention of improving school-wide test performance. …
Several teachers were asked by school leadership to review secure testing materials in violation of testing policy.
In a letter dated June 3, 2015, addressed to the LDE Director of Assessments, ReNEW Employee B notified the LDE of a potential testing procedure violation committed during the 2014-15 school year. According to this letter, the Head of School had directed four teachers to examine completed test booklets, after tests had been administered in order to prepare for the following year’s test, in violation of test security standards. …
In an interview with Employee B on June 17, 2015 conducted by LDE staff, Employee B indicated the situation was described in a departing staff member’s exit-survey. This staff member had referenced adults seeing secure test materials after the completion of student testing. According to Employee B, the ReNEW organization conducted an investigation and learned that three teachers had been asked to view testing material and two complied. In addition to the teacher who originally notified ReNEW, Employee B spoke with another teacher who confirmed that the Head of School asked this teacher to review test materials to become more comfortable with the content, and the teacher complied. …
ReNEW STA retained a disproportionate number of students, potentially to increase school-wide test performance.
The average rate of retention, retaining a student in the same grade for a subsequent year, for Type 5 charter schools from the 2013 to 2014 school year was 5.2%. The rate for the same years for STA was significantly higher at 15.3%. …
A similar disproportionality is evidenced by an average retention rate between the 2013-14 and 2014-15 school years for students with disabilities. At STA, 10.3% of students with disabilities were retained compared to a 5.1% average for all Type 5 charter schools. …
A series of emails and documents indicate that retention and promotion decisions may have been made based on the likelihood of a student passing the test in the next grade. This is in violation of school promotion policy.
IV. Internal processes failed to identify and address the problems at STA
The documentation collected to support the previous three findings suggest that ReNEW’s leadership was aware of many of violations described in this report during the 2014-15 school year. By October 31, 2014 as evidenced by an email exchange between members of ReNEW’s leadership team and Employee A, the leadership was aware of the discrepancy between the special education population actually enrolled at STA and the population that STA submitted in budget documents to the CMO. …
Additionally, in January 2015, Employee A shared information with ReNEW’s leadership outlining the series of events that occurred leading up to the February 1, 2015 student membership count. …
As noted by the above report excerpts, the two former SciTech Academy (STA) principals were found to have falsified special education documents in an effort to garner thousands in additional state funding. Among the required remediation is the following:
By February 15, 2016, create and share with the Department of Education a comprehensive plan to provide compensatory education and services to all 2014-15 students who did not receive the number of minutes required under their IEPs. ReNEW must make all reasonable efforts to provide all compensatory minutes to students, regardless of their current school, by July 1, 2016 and provide on-going documentation of those efforts.
Immediately communicate the need for compensatory minutes to all impacted families if this has not already occurred.
And regarding testing violations, the following requirements are mandated by the state:
By February 1, develop and implement a plan for all school-based instructional staff across all ReNEW Schools to be trained on state testing procedures for all relevant state-mandated tests.
By March 1, develop and implement a whistleblower policy for all staff across all ReNEW Schools to report potential violations of testing procedure.
By March 1, hire a test monitoring organization, to be approved by the Department, to monitor testing at every school in the network. This organization will prepare a report on overall testing procedures to the ReNEW board and to the Department of Education.
By May 1, develop a process for all ReNEW schools for identifying students that will be retained at the end of the school year.
There is much more to the report, including lengthy appendices, complete with incriminating emails. A thorough report. However, the damage is done, and LDOE shares the fault for preferring reactivity to proactivity.
If LDOE systematically and regularly audited RSD schools, then the likes of Hearin and Perez might think twice about trying to carry out self-promoting schemes– or at least be stopped before the fiscal fraud, cheating and student and parent exploitation arrived at such a twisted grand finale.