Audit: Arlington School District over-reported enrollment

ARLINGTON — Officials in the Arlington School District over-reported enrollment in alternative learning experience programs for the 2013-14 school year, the state auditor’s office found.

As a result, the district received $57,909 more in state funding than it should have, according to an audit report released July 20.

Alternative learning experience programs are largely off-campus education options. They can be online classes or parent-partner programs where the student spends several days a week on campus and the rest learning under parent supervision.

Arlington has two alternative learning programs: the Stillaguamish Valley School’s parent-partner program and online classes through Weston High School. The district has had a parent-partner program since the late 1990s. The online program is about 5 years old.

“The whole idea is just to offer more learning opportunities for kids,” said Deb Borgens, director of financial services for the district.

School districts include alternative learning students in enrollment numbers they report to the state, which determines how much funding schools receive. But in order to count the students for state funding, teachers and administrators must document detailed learning plans and perform monthly progress evaluations.

Most alternative students enrolled by the Arlington School District in 2013-14 lacked documentation to meet state requirements, the auditor found. Of about 134 students reported as enrolled in fall 2013, roughly 109 should not have been included in the tally.

The number of students is reported based on learning hours, so two half-time students in a parent-partner program count as one full-time student for enrollment. In Arlington, the hours reported to the state did not match district learning plans, according to the audit. The learning plans and monthly evaluations also were not completed on time.

The district received about $27.9 million in 2013-14 based on student and staff numbers. Of that, $796,416 was for alternative learning experience programs.

District officials promised to fix the problems. Their strategy includes simplifying oversight by bringing the smaller online program into the Stillaguamish Valley School. Enrollment, learning plans and progress reports would be tracked with the same software. The principal of the Stillaguamish Valley Learning Center, Joseph Doucette, is taking over as supervisor for the new combined program. Training and weekly meetings are planned for Doucette and his staff.

There are about 110 students in Arlington’s alternative learning experience programs this year, Borgens said. The online program has been growing but the parent-partner program is shrinking, she said.

Incorrectly reporting of enrollment numbers isn’t a new problem for the state. In 2013, the auditor’s office concluded that questionable enrollment counts for alternative learning programs caused $27 million in over-funding for districts statewide. Since then, requirements for documenting student hours, learning plans and progress reports have been tightened.

“It was documentation, it was reporting, it was understanding the rules and abiding by rules that were changing every year,” Borgens said. “We feel we have a handle on it now.”

When auditors find cases of over- or underfunding schools, they inform the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction’s Audit Resolution department, said Cheryl Thresher, school programs manager for the auditor’s office, in an email. From there, the district can address the auditor’s findings and OSPI officials determine how much money should be paid back.

When Arlington’s alternative learning experience programs last were audited in 2011, the auditor found $106,045 in overfunding and OSPI required the district to pay back $59,946.

The state Auditor’s Office this year has audited alternative learning experience programs in Everett, Edmonds, Lake Stevens, Granite Falls and Sultan*.

Alternative learning programs generally are audited every other year, and officials plan to check on Arlington’s progress in two years.

Kari Bray: 425-339-3439; kbray@heraldnet.com.

*Correction: July 29, 2015: This article originally incorrectly stated the status of the audits.

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