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New York

Liu eschews own audit to focus on Medicaid reimbursements

Liu at a press conference outside Tweed Courthouse, where he discussed Medicaid reimbursement for special education students. New York City Comptroller John Liu’s audit into the city’s embattled special education data system, released today, hammered home well-established issues, but found few new problems with the three-year-old initiative. Liu, who is running for mayor, instead used the occasion to highlight a challenge not mentioned in the audit — the city's ongoing struggle to get reimbursed for low income students with disabilities who are entitled to federal Medicaid dollars. Over the last two years, the city has collected just 25 percent, or $74 million, of the $284 million amount that the city had hoped to be reimbursed for, Liu said today at a press conference. Liu took the finding from a city budget report published this spring. But he said that responsibility for the losses lies with the city's data system, which his audit criticized. The data system, built to track 190,000 special education students with Individualized Education Plans, makes it "practically impossible" to file for reimbursements, Liu said, a claim that a city spokesman later disputed. Schools began using the Special Education Student Information System (SESIS) in 2011 to keep better track of students with disabilities. School staff working with special education students are required to log information about all stages of their IEPs, including details about initial assessments, meetings with parents, services provided, and changes made to the plan.
New York

City's school spending practices dinged for cash card misuse

A receipt photocopy from a school's p-card purchase that officials say was created only after the school was audited. Principals and teachers spent thousands of dollars from their city-issued cash cards on purchases that they were later unable to justify, including furniture, Kindles and $200 worth of movie tickets, according to an audit released today by Comptroller John Liu. Liu found that of the $130,000 in audited transactions, $85,551 was spent illicitly. Receipts were unaccounted for, transaction logs didn't match spending records, and, in one case, pizza receipts appeared to have been doctored to make up for the missing documentation. Liu's office targeted 500 receipts from five high schools that had suspicious records. The selected sample represented just a slice of the $17.2 million that city schools spent using the debit cards in 2011, called procurement cards, or p-cards. The city adopted the purchasing method in 2003 to provide more flexibility over budget spending. A teacher can use p-cards to pay for admission into museums or zoos for class trips; a school, meanwhile, could use them to quickly buy a new ink cartridge at a Staples instead of ordering through a vendor, which takes longer and costs more in processing fees. Liu's audit concluded that the flexibility had come in exchange for lax oversight. Although the city requires that schools follow considerable compliance when using the cards, Liu's report suggests that the audited cardholders were not being required to follow the rules. Cardholders must file receipts and fill out transaction logs detailing why the purchases were made. To maintain a tax exempt status, cardholders must complete a form at the time of their purchase. Some types of meals are banned from being expensed to the p-cards. And for individual purchases over $250, cardholders are required to first solicit bids from at least three vendors before deciding on the lowest-priced options Sixty-three of the 541 audited transactions — worth about $30,000 — did not have documentation that proved it was an "educational need." That includes $775 on five Kindle from Amazon.com, $194 in movie tickets from Costco.com and two sofabeds from Target worth nearly $700.
New York

Audit: DOE did not gather data to justify expanding tech initiative

Comptroller John Liu's office found that the Department of Education's five-year plan for NYC21C was not followed. The Department of Education never checked to see whether an initiative to transform city schools for the 21st century that was announced with a splash in 2009 was paying off, according to an audit released today by Comptroller John Liu. The audit is the latest in a series by Liu's office to conclude that the department does not adequately evaluate its programs and initiatives, which the Bloomberg administration has always delivered in rapid succession. The audit also has the department insisting that a technology initiative once billed as "the most exciting work we are now embarking on here in New York City's public schools" was actually a "small educational initiative" in just a handful of schools. The initiative, called NY21C, was unveiled in May 2009 at the iSchool, a centerpiece of the department's efforts to rethink schools using technology. Then-Chancellor Joel Klein said the program, which the city billed as a "research and development project" in promotional materials, would quickly expand across the entire city. The initiative did expand — but it also quickly evolved. In 2010, NYC21C became the 81-school Innovation Zone, and seven of the original 10 schools were dispersed into different branches of the zone. Since then, Klein and John White, another official who championed the Innovation Zone, have left the Department of Education, and the department's focus has shifted away from innovation and toward making instruction more rigorous in all schools through new learning standards. Figuring out just whether NYC21C accomplished the goals set out in its original five-year plan was lost in the shuffle, the audit concludes.
New York

Teachers give new Regents exam scoring system mixed reviews

The brand-new library at Evander Childs opened so teachers from other schools could grade Regents exams there. Last year, the Evander Childs Campus got a new library, replete with rows of new computers and a mural depicting scholarly pursuits. The library opened its doors for the first time last month — but not to students. Instead, it housed teachers from other high school campuses, who convened there to try out a new model for grading students' final exams. Regents exams, which students must pass to graduate from high school, have been scored by the teachers who administered them since the Regents exam program began in the nineteenth century. But mounting concerns about cheating — spurred on by the finding that students hit the minimum passing score at a disproportionately high rate — have prompted the city and state to make changes to how the exams are graded. The state’s test security overhaul calls for schools to stop grading their own Regents exams by June 2013. The changes are meant to reduce opportunities and incentives for teachers to inflate their students’ scores, which under state law could factor into teachers’ evaluations in the future. The shift would bring Regents exam grading in line with how most states score high-stakes exams and with New York State's requirements about elementary and middle schools' exams. Buoyed by its own concerns about cheating and softer forms of score inflation, the city has sped that timeline up. In January, a handful of schools tested out a system to ensure that teachers do not grade their own students’ exams. Department of Education officials expanded that system, known as "distributed scoring," to more than 160 schools this spring.  Most of the schools deployed teachers to centralized locations such as Evander Childs, and teachers from 17 schools tested a system for grading exams online. In total, about 107,000 exams were graded under distributed scoring last month. Teachers who participated in the pilot gave it mixed reviews. Some said the system made them better graders because they considered only the answers, not the students, when assigning scores. But others said the system of musical graders was complicated, time-consuming, and likely to lead to unfairly deflated scores. And a small number of missing tests highlight the potential cost of logistical mishaps.
New York

Audit: DOE paid too much for parsley and other food products

An audit by Comptroller John Liu's office found that the Department of Education overpaid for food about .003 percent of the time two years ago. Liu's latest DOE audit looked at the way the Office of SchoolFood contracts and pays vendors for food that is served in schools — at about 850,000 meals annually, according to the city. It concludes that of the $113.9 million spent on school food in the 2009-2010 school year, more than $400,000 could be recouped because records showed the city had paid too much or because there was no record that the city had received any food at all. The DOE is paying an 862 percent markup for fresh parsley and more than 400 percent the real cost of several other vegetables and herbs, according to a spreadsheet that Liu's office compiled. The department is paying more than the real value for 76 kinds of food, according to the spreadsheet. An even broader issue, according to the audit, is that department doesn't always check when contractors says they require payment or have made deliveries. “The DOE paid $113 million for which it got receipts, but never looked inside the bags to see if the groceries were there,” said Matthew Sweeney, a Liu spokesman, in a statement. The audit urges the city to tighten controls over school food spending. Last time Liu's office released the results of a DOE audit, about the use of pre-kindergarten funds, department officials said they were submitting their response "under protest." But Eric Goldstein, head of the Office of SchoolFood, signaled no such resistance in a letter accompanying the DOE's response to today's audit.
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