Thursday, November 6, 2008

Westchester Guardian/Catherine Wilson.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Catherine Wilson, Bureau Chief
Northern Westchester

Oversight And Accountability
In Our Schools


In 2004, an audit of the Rosyln, New York School District uncovered the fact that school officials had stolen and misspent over $11 million. As a result of that scandal, the then-New York State Comptroller, Alan Hevesi, announced new rules and regulations regarding the oversight of schools. The State Comptroller’s 5-point plan called for the following:

• Training of school board members on Financial oversight responsibilities;

• Establishment of an internal audit function in each school district;

• Creation of an Audit Committee;

• Establishment of a competitive process for selecting external auditors;

• Improvement of the effectiveness of external audits, including increased testing, rigorous corrective action plans, and realignment of the
claims audit function, directly reporting to the school board.

The purpose of these controls was to assure the financial integrity of our State’s schools. However, good internal controls also serve to assure the integrity of the operations of an organization as well. According to Wikipedia, the definition of internal controls is: “A process, effected by an entity’s board of directors, management, and other personnel, designed to provide reasonable assurance regarding the achievement of objectives in the following categories:

a) Effectiveness and efficiency of operations;

b) Reliability of financial reporting; and

c) Compliance with laws and regulations.

If our local schools have implemented the internal controls mandated under the New York State Education Laws, then each school district
should now be able to assure not only the financial stability of their schools, but also the security of our students, as well as the efficiency of the administrative process and the integrity and reliability of the structures and equipment, and the proficiency of the educational staff.

Using basic audit and internal controls standards, during the past four years since the adoption of this legislation, each and every system
in our schools should have been reviewed and best practices implemented and documented. However, an investigation by The Guardian has
uncovered deficiencies in the administration of our schools up to the legislative levels.

The first question The Guardian raised was, “How do our schools determine who is a legitimate student?” Many local parents send their children to schools out-of-district, opting to pay the non-resident tuition fees per child. By law, local taxpayers should not be burdened with the cost of educating children from other districts.

White Plains School District notes this on their website: “Parents/guardians are responsible for payment of tuition if the parents’ residency is not within the White Plains City School District”.

Therefore, each school district must require sufficient documentation from incoming students to determine if they are legitimate residents of
their district. But the level of documentation and record-verification by the districts is minimal. The registration information White Plains notes on its website is contradictory. The district requests the following documentation for all registrations:

• Proof of residency in White Plains;

• Official verification of the date of birth (birth or baptismal certificate or passport);

• Proof of guardianship (if child is not living with one or both natural parents);

• School Records (transcript, including report card, test results);

• Social Security Number (if available);

• Immunization Record.

The district does not require a social security number for a child to be registered to attend their schools. Yet on the same page the District notes that “A student cannot be assigned to a school if any documentation is missing!” So how can they register without a social security number? And without a unique social security or visa identification number to verify each student, how can the state audit for duplicate registrations of the same students across multiple districts? The student’s old school may accidently, or deliberately, keep them on the record
thereby beefing up state reimbursements.

State audits of local school districts have regularly uncovered cases of mismanagement and even fraud. Without a unique universal identifier for each child to determine if any child is on two school rosters, uncovering deliberate fraud where a school is purposely over-counting students is difficult.

Our local schools cannot absolutely verify that all of the children in their schools are legitimate students. The results are no better at higher
education levels. The response the Guardian received for this request, from Westchester Community College, was a curt: “We do not maintain records on illegal students”.

Given the high subsidies to both local districts and the State University system to educate each student, anyone who is not entitled to legal state resident subsidies should be paying the full “out-of-district” or “out-of-state” tuition. The difference to local taxpayers is substantial – New York State residents only pay $1,775 a semester to attend WCC versus $4,438 for nonresidents per semester – a difference of $5,326 per year per student. WCC boasts that it is “the largest educational institution in the county” with more than “12,000 students”. But if 10% of those students misrepresented themselves as legal residents of New York State, and the college is not performing the audit reviews required under the Hevesi Plan to catch these abusers, or even collecting the basic information to identify them, then local taxpayers are subsidizing an additional $640,000 in tuition for every 1,200 of these students every year. Hence the need for controls, reviews, documentation collection, and audits at all levels of our educational institutions to assure local tax dollars are not being abused.

But such controls do more than merely assure financial efficiency. Strong internal controls also assure safety and integrity of a school’s operations. Since our schools are responsible for the well-being of our children, it is especially critical for schools to have the highest levels of control and review to avoid negative consequences. One local school district, Mt. Pleasant, recently learned the hard way how a seemingly innocuous administrative and procedural error could have devastating consequences for a group of innocent, talented students.

All schools accept transfer students throughout the course of the year. Those transfer students are usually not known to their fellow classmates and teachers, which is why transfers are so difficult for children to handle to begin with. The only information a school usually has for such a student is their registration form and the transcript from the prior school. In Mt. Pleasant’s case, a young man I’ll call “Joe” transferred in from Rye Brook schools after the start of this school year into 12th grade at Westlake High School. “Joe” also immediately
joined the school’s varsity soccer team.

The team, a group of young men, many of whom had been playing together for over 12 years, were enjoying the best season of their careers and were clearly on their way towards becoming league champions. But two weeks ago, just before a Westlake-Rye Brook match, “Joe” informed the team coach that he could not play that game.

In the interest of full disclosure: this reporter is a Mt. Pleasant resident whose son played for the Westlake soccer team before graduating last year. Apparently Joe had ‘aged out’ of school sports – he turned 20 last month. Rye Brook had benched him from their team when he hit the
maximum age and “Joe” was afraid his old teammates would recognize him and disclose that he was an illegal player. To his credit, Westlake’s soccer coach immediately reported the error to the league. Despite the fact that “Joe” had only been on the team a few weeks and was not a dominant factor in their success, the league immediately stripped Westlake of its standings.

The graduating seniors are now robbed of the opportunity to declare “championship rankings” on their college admissions and the juniors
will not have the advantage of being scouted by college coaches at playoff matches. All because of a series of errors that should not have occurred. At the base of this problem is the conflicting New York State Education Laws. According to those laws, a school district may educate a student in a high school facility up to a maximum 21 years of age. There are two reasons for this law – handicapped children may need more time to fulfill their graduation requirements, and non-native English speakers may require additional time to master the language. But the same Education laws also set the maximum age limit of participation in school sports at age 19. According to Jennifer Simmons in
the Athletic Department in the Southern Westchester BOCES, the New York State Education Commissioner sets the maximum age for sports at 19 for safety reasons. “Older students have greater strength than younger students,” Simmons pointed out. “We want the children to be playing at the same level and ability for safety reasons”. But if safety is an issue, why, then, is a grown man or woman of 20 allowed in our schools at all? A High School education is not limited to classroom activity. A 20-year-old grown man could be competing in a touch football game in a gym class with much younger students, placing them at physical risk. Further, many local high schools share campuses and facilities with the middle schools in their districts.

Therefore these grown adults are sharing hallways, stairwells, locker rooms, rehearsal rooms, stage dressing rooms, library stacks, parking
lots, and bathrooms with children as young as 10 or 11.

BOCES admitted that 20-year olds have greater abilities and strength than younger students. But they also have very different sexual, emotional, and psychological needs than their younger counterparts as well. Every parent the Guardian polled on this issue said the idea of a grown 20-year old man or woman attending school side by side with their young children was inappropriate, and even “creepy”.

“Joe’s” teammates can be forgiven for assuming that an enrolled student was legitimately entitled to participate in all school activities – they did not even guess “Joe’s” real age, believing he was still a teenager like them. However, the Westlake discovery of an adult player on their soccer team uncovered problems with the district’s administrative processes.

The school district clearly notes on its website that all students must present an original birth certificate or passport to register for school. Either document would clearly show “Joe’s” date of birth. Yet “Joe’s” advanced age was never flagged to prohibit him from participation in sports. “Joe” then separately submitted his health forms to participate in sports, omitting his date of birth on those forms. This omission
was not discovered by the individuals responsible, these forms passed by the nurse’s office, the Athletic Director, and the coach, unstopped at each level of “review”. This revelation concerned local parents who now wonder, “What else is slipping by unnoticed?”

A meeting two weeks ago between parents and the District Board only raised additional concerns. Dr. Lodovico, the Superintendent of the
Mt. Pleasant School District, admitted that the “policies and procedures for this function were not documented”. Documenting policies and procedures for all functions is one of the basic tenets of internal controls. If the District adopted the 5 points in Hevesi’s plan, it would
have established an internal auditor. A basic audit would have revealed the lack of documentation. So why, four years after the state laws mandating them, do our schools still not have even elementary internal controls?

Which begs the questions, “How accountable are any of our schools four years after Roslyn? Who’s looking out for our kids?” Because, if the proper procedures were in place, procedures that were mandated four years ago, the young players of the Westlake team would be league champions tonight, instead of disheartened souls, innocent victims of lies and mismanagement. How many other schools are also lacking basic administrative controls to prevent such problems?

The Guardian is now determined to find out. We already asked the Mt. Pleasant School District to explain their internal control policy and how they implemented the Hevesi Rules. The response to our request for additional information for this article from the Superintendent, Dr. Lodovico, was: To:
guardiannews@optonline.net Cc: mcarbone@mtplcsd.org, caoconnor@mtplcsd.org, faloi@mtplcsd.org , rbello@mtplcsd.org, ldonato@mtplcsd.org, jpiazza@mtplcsd.org, cpinchiaroli@mtplcsd.org

Subject: RE: Guardian Article on WHS administrative fallout for soccer players

THIS SOCCER ISSUE IS A PERSONNEL MATTER. NOTHING MORE THAN WAS DISCUSSED AT LAST NIGHT’S MEETING IS APPROPRIATE.

Superintendent Lodovico’s response, copied to the entire school Board, raises important questions:

1) Why is an experienced educator dictating to a journalist what is, or is not, “appropriate” to report? Is the Dr. Lodovico attempting to impose some form of censorship? And,

2) Why does a school superintendent find the need to use “all caps” in his email; is this his way of shouting?

3) Why would a chief school administrator be so disrespectful to a taxpayer?

In my response to his email I insisted upon an apology from Dr. Lodovico. Dr. Lodovico’s email did not answer the questions posed to him at the Board meeting but merely included some ‘boilerplate’ information about how to submit a FOIL request. Therefore, the Guardian is not able to determine at this time what, if any, internal controls are currently in place in the Mt. Pleasant School District.

This incident has also raised concerns about the level of internal controls in the Croton-Harmon Schools as well. When the age of the adult
player was submitted to the local league, the coach of the Croton soccer team filed a separate complaint against the Mt. Pleasant team. The Guardian called the Croton-Harmon Superintendent Of Schools, Dr. Castro, to ask her, “On what authority did an individual soccer coach call to affect the lives of twenty students from another district; students that he has no legal authority over.” The Guardian asked
the Superintendent’s Office if this call, affecting another school not under their jurisdiction or authority, was made with the approval of the school district, and what internal controls and approval processes does Croton-Harmon have in place to assure that no individual in their District may act unilaterally to perhaps misrepresent their school or other students?

It is critical that, under no circumstances, may an individual, acting without proper authority, detrimentally affect the lives of children. Any allegations must go through a full investigation and authorization process. A coach may not individually file a claim against another school without approval from his school district to do so. Such approval processes are to protect against incorrect claims and allegations and would prevent the possibility of allegations filed by a petulant coach seeking individual glory. As of press time, we did not receive a response
from Croton-Harmon schools.

This entire series of incidents also poses the question as to how our local schools are managing the expanding cultural makeup of their students. As more students with limited English skills enter our schools, the likelihood of their still being students in high school at age 20 is stronger and, if the conflicting laws governing school sports are not changed, the athletic departments need to be prepared for more incidents such as this. The school administrations also need to be prepared for more cultural differences. Most other cultures do not necessarily engage in the same competitive activities for college entrance, and therefore may not understand the importance of our local school sports in that process.

Such individuals may be coming from less letiginous cultures and, therefore, may not fully appreciate the legal consequences in the way that our leagues and schools do. For example, to a young man from South America, Europe, or Africa, it might not be a big deal playing on a school soccer team, even though he is a couple of years older than the other students. Therefore, the internal controls of our schools have to be even stronger to catch an ever-widening variety of mishaps. It’s not as if this cannot be achieved. The regional travel sports teams all face the same issues, with none of these problems. The assistant director of a local soccer travel league explained to the Guardian, “We check
and verify all information at three separate levels – the coach, the area administration, and the regional administration.

This would never have happened in our travel league”. That league is mostly run by volunteers. So how is it volunteers can follow strict controls and procedures virtually without incident while paid professionals in our schools apparently cannot?

This incident also raises the question of the distribution of assets in our schools. Effective internal controls place assets where they are needed most. High school students, aware that they need to present a “well-rounded” persona to colleges, are now joining school sports teams in increasing numbers. Even those children with zero interest in sports are joining the track teams to compete in field events such as shot put and discus. Students arriving from Africa, Europe, South America, and Asia bring with them a love of the world’s most popular sport, soccer. Yet in most local schools, the bulk of the athletic assets are still being assigned to the football teams, distinguished from world football, known in the United States as soccer.

Some local co-ed track teams have over 100 participants, competing in over twenty separate events, all being handled by one coach, while
the boys-only football teams in many districts have up to six coaches for a one-event team! The football teams in our schools usually have the prime playing time at homecoming events, get the main field for play, have lighting and scoreboards for their field, and have official cheerleaders. This, despite the fact that football is still primarily a one-gender sport for a limited number of students.

If the Mt. Pleasant soccer team had more than one coach assigned to it, the error might not have occurred. More assets, such as coaches, assigned would have provided more control. Auditors assign assets according to need. Our school districts’ internal control policies should do so as well. The assets in our schools must match the increasing demands and changing needs of their students both in athletics and academics.

The Guardian has uncovered other issues regarding internal controls n our schools as a result of this preliminary investigation. We will
now be submitting FOIL requests to all of our local schools for a full disclosure of their policies, procedures, audits and reports, as well as their approval and authorization processes.

In the interim, the Guardian would like to reveal a disclosure from the Mt. Pleasant School Board meeting to the Westlake soccer team, commending their young players for their maturity in handling this unfortunate situation. The Board noted that the Westlake players have not retaliated against “Joe” in any way and that he is attending classes without incident. This reporter lauds the Westlake soccer team and the Westlake High School students for their behavior, a shining example for all of us.

No comments:

About Me