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Rest of the Story: Colorado Department of Education Audit

The Colorado Department of Education (CDE) wants to withhold $4.2 million from Douglas County School District (DCSD) students and staff by declaring some DCSD graduates as part-time students, even though some of them were short only a few seconds a day on their full-time schedules. CDE informed the District on June 23, 2015 that it will withhold the funding because CDE objected to the adequacy of the District’s documentation of classroom minutes for certain high school students in 2012 and 2013. DCSD plans to file suit to block the decision and address the abuse of discretion by CDE, as noted in this letter sent to CDE Commissioner of Education Robert Hammond.

“Our District completely rejects the Department’s position as arbitrary, capricious and not the result of reasoned agency decision-making,” DCSD Board of Education President Kevin Larsen and Vice President Doug Benevento stated in the June 25 letter to Hammond. “We intend to pursue our remedies in the Colorado courts with all deliberate speed.”

All Colorado school districts are reviewed by CDE to determine if students are meeting seat time requirements. It is not unusual for districts to have minor discrepancies in student seat time, leading to a status change from full-time to part-time. In these cases, districts are asked to refund money provided to them in support of full-time students.

Upon review of the 2012-13 school year, CDE claimed that full-time funding was provided for some DCSD students whom CDE classified as part-time. However, these students were not only full-time scholars – they graduated with above average credits. Many even graduated with honors.

The audit has nothing to do with graduation requirements. In fact, one of these students graduated with a 4.14 GPA, 26.5 credits and was accepted at the Colorado School of Mines. Another student graduated with a 4.25 GPA and 25.5 credits, and was accepted to Brigham Young and Emory University. Both of these students were declared part-time in the CDE audit, thus reducing their funding by half, even though they were clearly full-time students. The CDE audit in no way affects any student’s diploma.

DCSD was not made aware of CDE’s claim regarding the 2012-13 school year until February 2014 – nearly three-quarters into the following school year. This led to a similar claim by CDE for the 2013-14 school year, as DCSD high schools did not document advisement time to the satisfaction of CDE during these two years.

The so-called lost time is marginal. The students involved in the audit averaged 96.7% of the required seat time, making it illogical and unreasonable for CDE to reduce annual funding for those specific students by half. The $4.2 million decision is based on an average of eight minutes per day of improperly documented advisement time for the students cited in the audit.

For comparison purposes, students enrolled in DCSD's Cloverleaf Home Education program spend one day per week in the classroom. The state funds these students at 50%. CDE claims the full-time students involved in this audit, who attend classes all week, should receive the same funding as the Cloverleaf students.

Larsen and Benevento specifically objected to “the Department’s position imposing a 50% reduction in funding in cases involving, at worst, on average, a 3.3% shortfall in documented minutes,” contending that reduction “is untenable, punitive and unjust.” Larsen and Benevento stated “the Department clearly has the lawful discretion to make any funding reductions proportionate to the time for which the Department’s audit could not account in District documents.”

DCSD devotes approximately 92 percent of general fund revenues directly to supporting students. These extenuating circumstances occurred during a time of severe financial strain on DCSD – already one of the lowest funded school districts in the state. To maintain acceptable class sizes, DCSD high schools transitioned to an eight period schedule. Staff stepped up to teach six sections instead of five. This offered eight periods to high school students instead of seven, resulting in smaller class sizes and the continuation of electives.

CDE and DCSD released a joint statement during the audit, stating that the audit occurs regardless of the schedule followed by a high school.

Through the available appeal process, DCSD asked for a significant reduction or complete waiver of the dollar amount associated with this allegation, as these were full-time students and their funding paid for their full-time teachers as is the spirit of the applicable law. CDE Commissioner Hammond chose not to use his discretion, although he has previously done so for other school districts. DCSD will vigorously defend its students and staff by challenging the unreasonable application of the law in court, while simultaneously working toward legislation to address this issue.

DCSD is the only school district in Colorado over 35,000 students to receive the CDE rating of “Accredited with Distinction” – the highest rating possible. 

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