The Tucson Unified School District has been fined more than $1.9 million after a state audit found it failed to provide enough instructional hours for seventh- and eighth-grade students for three school years.

Inadequate oversight and errors in developing bell schedules were to blame for the shortage, which occurred in fiscal years 2008, 2009 and 2010, according to the audit conducted by the Arizona Department of Education.

TUSD now has 30 days to appeal or pay the fine.

School districts receive basic state aid based on several factors related to student enrollment and attendance. In addition to enrollment factors, school districts must provide at least the statutorily required minimum number of instructional hours - for seventh- and eighth-graders, it's 1,068 for the school year.

However, auditors found that 17 of the 26 TUSD schools serving those grades did not provide at least 1,068 hours for one or more of the three years in question.

The range of instructional hours provided per school varied greatly - from a high of 1,123.67 hours to a low of only 913.75 hours.

"Insufficient instructional hours limit student opportunities to learn," the audit report stated. "Since the district provided fewer instructional hours than required by statute for some of its seventh- and eighth-grade students, it inappropriately limited the amount of instructional time for its students' education. Assuming that more time spent in the classroom results in a better education, some of the district's students received fewer educational opportunities."

The deficiency in instructional hours was discovered by TUSD's independent auditors while performing the district's required annual financial audit for fiscal year 2009. As part of the mandated audit procedures, the audit firm assesses compliance with instructional hours requirements.

The finding prompted the Arizona Department of Education to investigate.

It was determined that TUSD schools are required to develop their own bell schedules and a process was in place to ensure that requirements were met. However, the process was not always followed.

Specifically, TUSD required that a bell schedule worksheet be filled out and submitted, but it did not ensure that the forms were actually turned in. For one of the years audited, TUSD could provide only two of the 26 forms that were to be submitted. There was no evidence of any follow-up on the missing information for the bell schedules, which detail start and end times for the school day, classes, lunchtime and passing periods.

When the worksheets were submitted, there was no evidence that they were reviewed for compliance. As a result, one year there were three schools that submitted schedules which reflected that they would not provide at least the minimum number of instructional hours, but no action was taken to rectify the shortages.

Additionally, the worksheets provided were not detailed enough to adequately develop or review a bell schedule to calculate actual instructional hours provided.

A common mistake at school sites involved counting noninstructional activities as instructional time. Examples of noninstructional time include homeroom, study skills, advisory time and wrap-up activities at the end of the school day, like passing out paperwork and cleaning work areas.

Though the audit found noncompliance each of the three years, the data showed that fewer schools were in violation by fiscal year 2010.

TUSD is required by the state to properly calculate instructional hours. It has implemented a new procedure for collecting bell schedules and other necessary information, district officials said.

The audit recommended that all schedules be reviewed, that feedback is provided when problems are identified and that the feedback is implemented.

 

Audit findings

• Schools that did not provide at least the minimum number of instructional hours for all three years audited: Booth-Fickett Magnet School, Carson Middle School, Gridley Middle School, Dodge Middle Magnet School, Mary Meredith K-12 School, Pistor Middle School, Secrist Middle School and Southwest Alternative Middle School.

• Schools that did not provide at least the minimum number of instructional hours for two of the three years audited: Doolen Middle School, Hohokam Middle School, Teenage Parent Program, Utterback Middle Magnet School and Wakefield Middle School.

• Schools that did not provide at least the minimum number of instructional hours for one of the three years audited: Alice Vail Middle School, Joyce Drake Alternative Middle School, Naylor Middle School and Pueblo Gardens K-8 School.

• Schools that were in compliance for all three years audited: Magee Middle School, Mansfeld Middle School, Maxwell Middle School, Miles Exploratory Learning Center, Richey Elementary School, Roskruge Magnet Middle School, Safford Magnet Middle School, Townsend Middle School and Valencia Middle School.

Contact reporter Alexis Huicochea at ahuicochea@azstarnet.com or 573-4175.