Group says school email spotlighted hours shortfall

DCSD trying to get $4.2 million fine reduced

Posted 10/18/15

Based on information from a recent public records request, the parents and community members of the Strong Schools Coalition say the Douglas County School District knew of a potential shortfall in high school instructional time more than a year …

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Group says school email spotlighted hours shortfall

DCSD trying to get $4.2 million fine reduced

Posted

Based on information from a recent public records request, the parents and community members of the Strong Schools Coalition say the Douglas County School District knew of a potential shortfall in high school instructional time more than a year before it said it did.

In an Aug. 29, 2012 email from Janece Rogers, the district's student data and information services manager, she expresses concerns to district administration over the potential issue at Legend High School in Parker.

“I am worried about LHS the school, with 5 classes, the schedule is short 360 hours without including the 24 hours for PT conferences,” Rogers wrote in the email. “If you included PT time with the 5 classes it makes the 360 required hours only by 2 hours and if there is two snow days the 5 classes will not work.

PT refers to parent-teacher conferences. The Strong Schools Coalition said it obtained the email through a Colorado Open Records Act request in September.

“We probably would have had more students lose their full-time status if there was a really bad snowstorm,” said Laura Mutton, president of the Strong Schools Coalition. “That's a lot of funding to be putting at risk.”

The school district — fined $4.2 million by the Colorado Department of Education in June for 1,100 students who attended school part-time but received full-time state funding — maintains it did not know about the problem until 18 months after the dates in question.

District officials also say the CDE's formula for counting full-time students is confusing and does not reflect an accurate picture. Some of the disagreement focuses on what should be counted as instructional time.

“This misunderstanding on our part and CDE's, literally over a couple of minutes in the vast majority of cases, leads to an issue of full-time funding versus half-time funding,” district budget director Scott Smith said.

The CDE has offered the district a 15-year payment plan, or about $280,000 annually. But district officials say they are working with CDE to reduce the penalty.

“The commissioner has the right to wave those penalties,” said Steven Cook, assistant superintendent of secondary education. “It doesn't seem unreasonable on our part. Our intent was good.”

Dana Smith, CDE's director of communications, confirmed discussions are underway but declined to talk about specifics because the issue falls under attorney-client privilege.

The deadline for a decision is mid-November.

“We need to let these talks continue,” Smith of the CDE said, “and hopefully we can meet an acceptable resolution.”

Request for emails

Mutton said the organization made its open records request following a June 23 letter from CDE Commissioner Robert Hammond to Superintendent Elizabeth Fagen that said the district should have been aware of the issue.

“The evidence that we have received indicate the district was aware of the potential shortage in the scheduled time; however did not correct the problem until the 2014-15 school year,” wrote Hammond, who retired in July.

According to the district, the email cited by the Strong Schools Coalition is routine and similar counts are done every year.

Each year, all public school districts in Colorado participate in the Student October Count data submission to the CDE. The purpose of the collection is to obtain required student level data as provided for by state statute, including information regarding students' funding eligibility.

The Student October Count is based on a one-day membership count in which districts are asked to report all students who are actively enrolled and attending classes through their district on that date.

The state's findings are tied to individual student schedules during the 2012-13 and 2013-14 academic year. During that time, most Douglas County high schools were on a block schedule that offered eight classes one day a week and two four-session days the remainder of the week.

The schedule was a cost-cutting move caused by an $18.1 million shortfall in 2012. The schedule has since been abandoned by most schools.

Each student must have 360 hours of teacher instruction per semester. The CDE said some DCSD students missed that mark by a few hours, others by more than 200.

A difference in philosophy

Then-Legend High School Principal Corey Wise, now the district's director of 21st Century Learning, said the problem arose not because of the schedule, but because the state does not provide specific guidelines on how to tabulate instructional hours.

“We all thought we were hitting instructional minutes,” Wise said.

Smith, the budget director, said the CDE's guide to calculating bell schedules to full time is "one of the most detailed and difficult processes I have ever seen for something that should be relatively simple.”

Whether homeroom and advising periods should be counted as instructional time also proved to be a point of contention. The district favors including these periods. The state does not.

“Our kids were full time,” Wise said. “They were in honor societies, athletics, activities, taking full and rigorous loads of courses.”

And during advisement, they were doing “purposeful career and college planning,” he said.

The students whose schedules were in question averaged 96.7 percent of the required seat time, according to the district.

According to the school district's Smith, the October Count represents how many average instructional minutes a day students are scheduled for as of Oct. 1. It does not take into account the second semester for a yearly average or penalize students for dropping classes after that date.

“It has nothing to do with how many minutes you actually go to school. It has nothing to do with actual performance or academic achievement,” he said. “It is literally what your schedule is for the first four months of school on a particular day of the year.”

The district also points out the state includes passing periods between classes as instructional time.

But even if homeroom and advisements periods were counted, the CDE's Smith said, the district would have still fallen short of the needed hours.

Regardless of fault, all parties said they hope to avoid a lengthy legal battle.

“They are trying to make the state change the rules after the fact and that's going to cost a lot of taxpayer dollars if they continue to pursue this through the courts,” Mutton said.

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