Audit finds Ed. Department mishandled school complaints

Audit finds Ed. Department mishandled school complaints

(Calif.) Local educational agencies have failed to uniformly investigate complaints alleging violations of state or federal law, according to a new report from the California State Auditor’s office.

Issues found stem from a lack of centralized oversight at the California Department of Education, as well as from inefficient processes to address complaints at the local level, auditors found.

“Federal and state laws and federal regulations require (the Education Department) to monitor LEAs to ensure their compliance with a broad range of federal education program requirements, including requirements related to the Uniform Complaint Procedures (UCP),” authors of the report wrote. They also noted that the department “has not designated a central office to be responsible for its intake of UCP complaints and appeals. Instead, 14 different offices and divisions (divisions) receive and process complaints and appeals, resulting in delays in forwarding some complaints and appeals to the correct divisions responsible for acting on them.

“In addition, the Education Department has not established standard policies and procedures for its divisions to follow when investigating complaints and reviewing appeals,” authors concluded.

Auditors found instances at the local level when all three of the LEAs reviewed–Los Angeles Unified, San Juan Unified, and San Diego Unified School District–did not meet certain requirements in handling complaints, including the requirement that an investigation be completed within 60 days of receiving a complaint.

Uniform Complaint Procedures were established in 1991 to provide a uniform process for investigating complaints from students, parents or community members alleging that schools or districts had violated federal or state laws and regulations. Last year, complaints were filed involving discrimination, harassment, bullying and school facilities, as well as programs covering special education, adult education and child nutrition.  

Under the procedures, school districts and county offices of education are primarily responsible for investigating most complaints, but the State Department of Education must directly investigate complaints related to special education and nutrition services under federal law. The department also processes any appeals of LEA investigation results.

According to the audit, however, a lack of uniform organization has actually caused a handful of problems at the state and local levels. Significant delays in processing some complaints and appeals resulted from a lack of central oversight of the Education Department’s intake of complaints. Auditors noted the wrong divisions sometimes received complaints or appeals and did not forward them to the correct divisions in a timely manner.

Additionally, auditors found complaints and appeals were handled inconsistently, likely caused by a lack of established standardized UCP policies and procedures developed by the Education Department to ensure regulations such as time frames for completing investigations and reviews were followed.

Auditor’s recommended the Education Department establish a central office tasked with complaint intake, and develop uniform policies and procedures for all its divisions to follow in investigating complaints.

The Education Department held in a letter responding to the audit–which took place between July, 2013 and June, 2016–that the findings in the report regarding missed 60-day investigation timelines were “misleading and subjective,” and said that time limit did not apply to a majority of programs subject to UCP appeals.

And Michelle Zumot, chief deputy superintendent of public instruction, said that only 2.2 percent of the complaints and appeals that were sent to the wrong division were delayed by 30 days or more.

Ultimately, Zumot said she did not concur with the state auditor’s recommendation to establish a central UCP office, noting that doing so would require additional staff and funding.

“(The Education Department) currently has systems and processes in place to ensure that complaints and appeals are addressed in compliance with state law and regulations,” Zumot wrote. “A centralized office for the oversight of all UCP complaints and appeals is not required in the law.”