Will Evans, California Watch
The Oakland Unified School District failed to follow federal regulations in doling out taxpayer money to benefit local private schools and must pay some of it back, a state review has found.
The state Department of Education cited Oakland Unified for not meeting federal requirements in its distribution of federal Title I and Title II money to provide teacher training and tutoring for struggling students at private schools. Private schools are entitled to a share of federal money, but public school districts are responsible for maintaining control of the funds.
The state found that Oakland Unified paid instructors who were not independent of their private schools, shipped materials directly to the private schools without taking an inventory and let private schools design their own taxpayer-funded programs.
State officials expedited the review, originally planned for January, after California Watch reported that the district had paid officials at St. Andrew Missionary Baptist Church’s private school based on padded enrollment numbers. The West Oakland K-12 school also has come under fire for making its students solicit money at BART stations and for the alleged physical abuse of students, which the school has denied.
Oakland Unified is asking for more time to resolve the state's findings of noncompliance, said spokesman Troy Flint.
"Normally, you would have had a longer time frame ... to make sure you have all your ducks in a row," Flint said. "We didn’t have that. Working in a more compressed time frame was a challenge for us."
School board member Noel Gallo, who has pushed for more oversight of the funding, said he will work to "address publicly the corrections that we have made and be able to monitor that on an ongoing basis."
School districts are allowed to use the federal money to pay private school teachers to provide services like additional tutoring, but the teachers must be independent of the private schools.
The education department's review stated that Oakland Unified inappropriately paid $21,000 to a St. Andrew teacher who was not independent of the family-run school and that the district must "recover" those funds.
If the district is at fault for the problem, Flint said, it will have to compensate the federal program with other district money.
The report also cited the district for hiring the administrator of a Nation of Islam-affiliated K-12 school, Muhammad University of Islam, to provide services at her own school.
Flint said the district has "philosophical differences" with the California Department of Education over its interpretation of the law.
"We had a differing interpretation, but obviously, we’re compelled to follow the judgment of the CDE and we’ll do that," he said. "But we just want to make sure that we have clarity on what the parameters are."
Some private schools have objected to the requirements now being enforced by state officials, he said.
"Because there’s been more scrutiny as a result of the investigation related to St. Andrew, I guess they feel that some autonomy has been compromised," he said. "The district, the state and the private schools need to reach a common understanding so that everyone can be satisfied that the law's being upheld."
The state review also singled out $3,600 in inappropriate payments to Robert Lacy Jr., a St. Andrew teacher whose father runs the school and church. The district had paid Lacy $100 per hour to repair computers for student use in October 2011 and again in March of this year. The Department of Education's report directed the district to reimburse the federal program from another funding source.
In earlier interviews with California Watch, several former students said Lacy would hit, kick and throw things at students and rarely let them use the computers. School officials have denied all allegations of abuse.
Earlier this year, Oakland Unified decided to cut off federal funds to St. Andrew. After California Watch's investigation, the district determined that the school did inflate enrollment figures, which are used to allocate the funding.
The district also added two staff members to oversee the funds and required more visits to private schools to better monitor the use of the money.
"I think that should address a lot of the concerns that the state has," Flint said. "We can get beyond this and move our attention to our true emphasis, which is Oakland public school students."