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Audit Slams Bellflower Unified, Finds a Massive $83 Million in Reserve While Administration Neglects Students

June 26, 2022, 1:08 p.m.

By Brian Hews

Note: The BUSD’s response is below this article.

 

An audit by the state of California has found what can be only described as complete incompetence and negligence by both Bellflower Unified School District’s (BUSD) administration and board, their actions creating a perfect storm of mismanagement encompassing the superintendent’s failure to communicate the financial situation of the district coupled with a board that has abandoned their oversight responsibilities.

Questions will swirl asking why BUSD has amassed and ignored an unheard of $83 million in reserve for 2020–21, far exceeding the state’s minimum amount, which is between three and ten percent of the district’s budget while systematically neglecting students and staff.

The current Superintendent at BUSD is Tracy McSparren, who was hired in mid 2018. The current board is President Renita Armstrong, Vice President Richard Downing, Clerk Mayra Garza, and Board Members Dr. Sue ElHessen and Rev. Tomas Ivens.

The audit findings were a top-to-bottom condemnation that call into question Superintendent McSparren’s capabilities and ethics and could lead to the board asking for her resignation and that of the CFO, Sulema Holguin.

Some of the mismanagement included:
1. Lack of communication with the board
2. Not complying with transparency laws
3. Not spending what was budgeted
4. Not consistently provided required services and support to students with disabilities
5. Depriving students of their rights to access equal education
6. Not adequately mitigating disruptions caused by the pandemic
7. Graduating students not prepared for college or careers.

In addition, McSparren’s office went along with trying to hide the incompetence, refusing to respond to public records and, when the office complied, submitting documents late, a violation of California’s Public Records Act.

Not to be outdone, the audit cited instances where the board violated state laws, failing to “report out” [disclose] required information discussed during closed sessions to the public, a violation of the Ralph M. Brown Act, which governs open meetings for local government bodies.

Where Was BUSD’s Chief Financial Officer Sulema Holguin?

BUSD parents will be shocked to learn that the district “consistently” spent less than what was approved by the board in its annual budget for students, shocked again that no alarms went off inside the BUSD Board Room to correct the situation.

BUSD has the fiduciary duty to allocate and spend public funds.

If the board had delved into the numbers, they would have found that the district spent from 9 percent to 31 percent less than it budgeted in each of the last six fiscal years.

They did not have to look far for proof of damage. BUSD’s student scores on the most recent available statewide math tests were below California’s average. Further, the California Department of Education’s website indicated that 61 percent of BUSD’s graduating students were not prepared for college or careers.

Ordered to Hide Inadequacies and Cheat the Public?

The examination found that the district did not respond to thirty percent of the public records request received in 2021; when BUSD did respond, they were not timely or worse, were incomplete, all violations of the California Public Records Act and a strong indication the BUSD was attempting to hide information.

In addition, BUSD often did not report out of closed session required information to the public and did not post notices informing the public could where they could review crucial documents before public meetings; both are violations of state law.

But the most egregious violations, abuses that could trigger a class action lawsuit, is that BUSD has not consistently provided required services and support to students with disabilities.

Under state law, a district receiving funds for students with documented disabilities must use the funds that year; according to the report, BUSD was not spending the money targeted for those students.

As evidence, Administrative Hearings by the Department of General Services decided fifteen cases involving complaints with BUSD in the past five years—higher than other school districts that serve more students with disabilities.

In fourteen of the fifteen complaints involving BUSD, it was ruled that the district did not comply with one or more areas of special education law. One of the worst violations involved not performing evaluations to determine whether students required special education services when it had evidence that such evaluations were warranted.

The report also found that BUSD did not change services or make accommodations for struggling students to access their education and did not include measurable goals in students’ special education programs.

The audit included several recommendations and can be found here.

The state audit slammed the BUSD Superintendent and Board for complete ethical lapses and negligence, but there were others involved in the malfeasance….stay tuned.

 

BUSD’s response has been edited for length.

Bellflower Unified School District recently completed an audit review requested by two community legislators. 

Bellflower USD fully cooperated with the auditors during the entire nearly eight-month process.  No responsive information or records were withheld. 

One of the biggest areas of concern for the auditors was the District’s reserve level.  The District recognizes it has a healthy cash reserve and prides itself in continuing to be prepared for unexpected events, a lesson reinforced by last-minute adjustments required during the pandemic.  

Districts cannot obtain healthy reserves without having sound practices.  Reserves are also public funds. We do use a conservative approach and our sites do an outstanding job of budgeting based on identified needs.   

While the auditors felt, as is their right, that what you budget should be what you spend each year, in changing times you budget for worst-case scenarios and spend as needed to meet educational, student and community needs.  

The budgeting process for a large, active school district in California is no simple matter.  The Board, comprised of five elected representatives reflecting diverse and valuable expertise, reviews the draft budget, provides valued input, and the budget is revised and approved by a committed, intelligent Board every year, with full disclosure of material assumptions, needs and forecasts.  

Finally, it is noted that there were no unethical findings and, as stated in the audit, the District will be working with the Board in formulating action plans for continued improvement.  

The following links provide more information regarding reserves and our response to the audit.

https://lao.ca.gov/Publications/Report/4216 

https://www.ppic.org/wp-content/uploads/funding-california-schools-when-budgets-fall-short-october-2020.pdf 

https://www.auditor.ca.gov/reports/2021-108/index.html#section6  

SPECIAL EDUCATION

In the area of special education, Bellflower USD offers a complete range of services for infants through age 22.  Bellflower USD has had only a proportionate share of special education complaints. We do our best to make good decisions, but there will be disagreements at times where hearings are necessary.  Fifteen hearings between 2017 and 2020, three full school years with 1,700 students receiving special education services, is not an indicator of any problem.  We have appealed cases when we believe a bona fide legal dispute existed. One example is requiring the district to pay for a one on one program.  That is a highly restrictive educational environment, and federal law requires us to provide the least restrictive environment that allows students to interact with peers.  That Bellflower USD does so is to assure that reasonable special education services are appropriately provided while contesting inappropriate or excessive demands.

When we take a case to hearing, a training on the findings is always conducted. Sometimes it is District wide, other times on a smaller as needed scale. We always learn how to better serve our students. We also have several processes for parents who need support with the IEP process. Every site has a Program Administrator assigned to assist in meeting the needs of the students and staff. Parents may contact the special education office with concerns, and a program administrator will contact the parent to work to resolve the concern and may attend IEP meetings as needed to provide support.  Additionally, through the Mid-Cities SELPA we have a director who assists parents with concerns and provides parent training.  Also, through Mid-Cities SELPA we have Alternative Dispute Resolution vehicles available.  While we can always improve, Bellflower USD does an excellent job in fairly and objectively seeking to meet all standards for special education needs.

With regard to our students not being prepared for college and career at the same rate as other districts, that is misleading. In order to be considered college career ready, a student must complete the four-year college A-G pathway or take a minimum of a two-year sequence in the same career pathway.  Some districts have increased their graduation requirements to meet A-G requirements. Bellflower USD has not, but is investigating this as an option. Bellflower USD encourages and supports students to take the most rigorous pathway to graduation possible.  However, Bellflower USD has a high number of students who choose a community college pathway.  For those students neither the A-G or a career pathway.

CONCLUSION

After receiving the draft audit report, Bellflower USD’s responses provided context, clarification and further information to assist the State Auditor. Numbers alone do not show the full picture, background and context are also important which Bellflower USD is in a unique position to provide. Bellflower USD remains committed to considering and acting appropriately on all of the State Auditor’s recommendations, but feels at points the audit report fell short in providing a more complete or detailed discussion for the benefit of any reviewing party.

While we have disagreements, every one of the State Auditor’s recommendations will be brought back by the Superintendent and her staff to the Governing Board for a full, open discussion, and action plans formulated to continue to challenge ourselves to be better and stronger as a school district.

Bellflower USD has reviewed the comments of the State Auditor in looking at the District, and in lieu of simply rejecting or arguing them, embraces the opportunity to learn from them, reassess, and make positive changes so that this valuable exercise serves to improve even further the District’s operations and service to the community.

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