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- Education Has Not Provided the Oversight Necessary to Ensure Its Divisions Comply With UCP Requirements
- LEAs Have Not Ensured That Their Processes for Addressing UCP Complaints Are Efficient and Meet All State Requirements
- Oversight of Charter Schools’ Compliance With the UCP Can Be Improved
- Other Areas We Reviewed
- Scope and Methodology
Education Has Not Provided the Oversight Necessary to Ensure Its Divisions Comply With UCP Requirements
- Education’s lack of central oversight of its intake of UCP complaints and appeals has resulted in significant delays in its processing of some complaints and appeals. Specifically, we noted the wrong divisions received complaints and appeals and sometimes did not forward them to the appropriate divisions in a timely manner. Additionally, although various state laws and federal and state regulations specify completion of investigations and appeals within certain time frames, we noted some divisions do not initiate the start of these time frames until the correct division receives the complaint or appeal, resulting in Education not accurately measuring the number of days to complete investigations of complaints and reviews of appeals.
- Because Education has not established standardized UCP policies and procedures for its divisions to follow, its divisions have processed complaints and appeals inconsistently. Further, Education has not ensured that its divisions adhere to regulations regarding the time frames for completing investigations and reviews, nor has it ensured that the reports the divisions issue contain all the elements the regulations require.
Education’s Weak Oversight of the Intake Process
Education does not have a central entity for receiving and processing its intake of complaints and appeals. Instead, Education has designated 14 divisions as contacts for complaints and appeals related to programs and services covered under the UCP. Of these 14, eight divisions received complaints or appeals during our audit period, which was from July 1, 2013, through June 30, 2016. 1 Because of the low number of appeals, one of these divisions did not maintain a database to track the appeals. The remaining seven divisions tracked complaints and appeals; however, they did not each record the same data about the complaints and appeals they received. For example, the Nutrition Services Division (Nutrition Services) recorded the school district names and numbers of the LEAs involved, the file numbers, descriptions of the complaints, the dates it received the complaints, and the dates it closed the complaints. However, Categorical Complaints Management tracked significantly more information, such as the names of the complainants, the staff it assigned to the complaints and appeals, the dates it sent decisions, the dates corrective actions were due, and dates related to pertinent correspondence. Because the data the divisions collect and track vary, Education does not have a core set of data with which to measure its performance and to ensure that the divisions comply with UCP requirements.
Education’s lack of a central division for intake has also led to some complaints and appeals not reaching the appropriate divisions in a timely manner. For example, our review found that the wrong division received 57 of the 675 appeals sent to Education from July 2013 through June 2016. In 15 of these 57 instances, the division that incorrectly received the appeal did not refer the appeal to the correct division for 3 days or more. In fact, one appeal was not referred to the correct division for 473 days. Similarly, the wrong division received 36 of the 2,958 complaints during the audit period. In Appendix A we show the 57 appeals by type in Table A.1. and the 36 complaints in Table A.2.
The most egregious examples we found of complaints and appeals not promptly reaching the correct divisions involved the Educational Equity UCP Appeals Office (Educational Equity). According to an education administrator, Education formed Educational Equity in April 2015 to address UCP complaints and appeals that had been filed with the Office of Equal Opportunity (Equal Opportunity). When Educational Equity was formed, it inherited a backlog of 70 complaints and 162 appeals received between July 2013 and April 2015. This backlog included 10 complaints and nine appeals that Equal Opportunity had received incorrectly and should have forwarded to other divisions for processing. Of these, eight complaints and eight appeals were not referred to other divisions for 30 days or more.
In one particularly problematic instance, Equal Opportunity received an appeal in June 2014 from a parent regarding an LEA’s decision. The parent had complained to the LEA that his child was removed from the After School Education and Safety Program at an elementary school as an act of retaliation because the parent had criticized district policies and procedures. According to correspondence in the appeal review file, Education’s Expanded Learning Division (formerly the After School Division) received this appeal in late August 2015, more than a year after Equal Opportunity had received it. In this instance, the Expanded Learning Division ultimately agreed with the LEA’s decision; however, had the appeal decision been in favor of the parent, the delay could have potentially impeded the student’s educational opportunities.
Further, although various state laws and federal and state regulations require Education to complete investigations of complaints and reviews of some appeals within certain time frames, we noted that some of its divisions do not initiate the start of these time frames until the correct division receives the complaint or appeal. Also, according to an educational administrator, Educational Equity does not start the clock on its time frame until it receives a complete file, including all information requested from the LEA and the complainant. When Education does not ensure that complaints and appeals received by the wrong division are redirected promptly, it increases the risk that the division responsible for addressing the complaint or appeal will not complete it in a timely manner. Additionally, by using the date that the appropriate division receives the complaint or appeal, or when a division receives the file from the LEA, to initiate its time frame, rather than the actual date it was first received by the division within Education to which it was addressed, Education is not accurately measuring the number of days to complete investigations of complaints and reviews of appeals. Further, the inconsistent criteria applied to starting the clock on the time frame can cause confusion for complainants who wish to determine when reports or decisions are due to them.
To determine whether an alternative approach could improve Education’s intake of complaints and appeals, we reviewed 11 other states’ processes for handling complaints and appeals related to schools and school districts. We believe the process that the Texas Education Agency (Texas Education) uses for receiving complaints could resolve the issues we identified in Education’s intake. Texas Education has one central office that receives all complaints. The complaint procedures on its website clearly identify this office as the location where individuals should submit complaints. According to a manager in Texas Education’s Office of Complaints, Investigations, and Enforcement, this central office records all the complaints it receives in one central database and then refers each to the appropriate division for investigation and resolution. A similar central intake at Education would prevent complaints and appeals from going to the wrong divisions. Further, a central log for tracking the complaints would allow Education to effectively monitor the progress and resolutions to UCP complaints and appeals.
When we asked Education about having a central office for receiving and managing UCP complaints and appeals, Education’s chief deputy superintendent (chief deputy) stated that Education has been looking at ways to develop and implement a shared or centralized database. She also stated that a centralized office for UCP is not required by law and that Education currently has systems in place. Moreover, she stated having a centralized office to receive all complaints would delay the process for beginning the substantive review of an appeal or request for direct intervention. However, as we have already discussed, the current practices and systems Education has in place have resulted in many complaints and appeals being received by the wrong division and not redirected to the correct division promptly. We believe that a central office for receiving complaints and appeals would help eliminate complainants’ confusion about where to send a complaint or appeal and would streamline the process by preventing complaints and appeals from going to an incorrect division.
Lack of Timely Investigations and Reviews
Lack of a uniform time frame for completing investigations of complaints and reviews of appeals in the UCP regulations has resulted in the divisions adopting inconsistent practices for addressing complaints and appeals. This lack of uniformity creates inequities and may lead to frustration for complainants. Federal regulations specify time frames for some programs, while state regulations and law specify time frames for others. For example, federal regulations require Education to issue decisions within 60 days of receiving complaints related to special education. Similarly, state law requires Education to issue decisions within 60 days of receiving appeals related to courses without educational content or to homeless or foster youth. Moreover, both state law and UCP regulations state a 60‑day time frame for completing appeals related to pupil fees.
However, there are no specific time frames in UCP regulations for other types of appeals subject to the UCP, which has caused confusion among some divisions. For example, the education administrator for Categorical Complaints Management, which handles complaints and appeals related to federal No Child Left Behind programs and unlawful pupil fees, stated that outside of pupil fees and courses without educational content, there is no deadline for completing appeals in Categorical Complaints Management. However, she added that her division still works to complete reviews within 60 days. Similarly, in discussing the time frames related to complaints and appeals that Educational Equity handles, an education administrator stated that there is no requirement in regulation that prescribes the time limit for appeals. Instead, she stated that Educational Equity makes every effort to use the 60‑day timeline to comply with requirements of a lawsuit settlement agreement signed in November 2015.
Further adding to the complexity, UCP regulations provide a 60‑day time frame to complete an investigation of a complaint that Education has accepted as direct intervention. The regulations also provide a 60‑day time frame to complete a review of an appeal that requires additional investigation by Education. In both cases, the regulations allow Education an additional 60 days to issue the decision, for a total of 120 days. The existing regulations do not impose any time limit on appeals that do not require additional investigation. This results in the paradoxical situation in which appeals that require additional work have defined time limits, but appeals that do not require additional work have no defined time limit. This lack of consistency in timelines is confusing to complainants and LEAs alike, and leads to uncertainty even among the divisions of Education.
To ensure consistency in its processing of complaints and appeals and to provide clarity to LEAs and complainants, Education should establish a uniform time frame for issuing decisions for all complaints and appeals. As noted previously, various provisions of state law, federal regulations, and the UCP regulations impose 60‑day time frames for the completion of complaints and appeals related to specific programs. Moreover, UCP regulations require LEAs to complete investigations and issue decisions within 60 days of receiving complaints. Therefore, we believe that 60 days is a reasonable time frame for Education to issue decisions on all complaints and appeals.
Consequently, to determine whether Education was performing investigations and reviews in a timely manner, we measured whether it issued decisions on complaints and appeals it received within 60 days of receiving them. As shown in Table 2, in our review of 30 files in eight divisions, we identified 13 instances in which four divisions did not complete investigations and reviews within 60 days. Education exceeded the 60‑day mark by a range of 10 to 585 daysfor eight complaints and five appeals.
Timeliness of a Selection of the California Department of Education’s Investigations of Complaints and Reviews of Appeals
July 1, 2013, Through June 30, 2016
Source: California State Auditor’s analysis of California Department of Education’s (Education) complaint files and appeal files.
* This number includes one appeal that contained a new complaint allegation that the local educational agency had not previously investigated. The complainant requested direct intervention from Education.
† This number includes three requests for reconsideration. Such requests allow either party involved with a complaint an opportunity to request the State Superintendent of Public Instruction’s reconsideration of Education’s previous decision on a complaint.
We asked each of the four divisions whether staffing issues contributed to their delays in addressing the 13 UCP complaints and appeals. Two divisions—Nutrition Services and Educational Equity—indicated staffing concerns. We discuss Nutrition Services later in this section. Educational Equity requested additional staffing to support the processing, review, and investigation of complex UCP appeals and complaints in a timely manner. The 2016 Budget Bill included an additional position for Education to support Educational Equity’s activities associated with its UCP complaints and appeals. The remaining two divisions indicated that staffing issues did not cause delays in their addressing UCP complaints and appeals.
When it exceeded the time frames for completing investigations and reviews, Education did not always request extensions from the complainants. Where an investigation is necessary to complete an appeal or a direct intervention that will exceed required time frames, regulations require Education to seek extensions and to document its rationale. Of the 13 cases, one was an appeal related to the After School Education and Safety Program, which was reviewed by the Expanded Learning Division. UCP regulations do not require a time frame for completing appeals related to this program, and the review for this appeal did not require additional investigation. Therefore, the Expanded Learning Division was not required to seek an extension or document its rationale for extending the review. Further, although Educational Equity exceeded the 60‑day mark for four appeals and two complaints, three of the four appeals occurred before Education signed the settlement agreement in November 2015, which requires Education to notify complainants if the appeals will take longer than 60 days. Educational Equity and Education’s other divisions were required to notify the complainant, or seek an extension and document their rationale for extending the investigations or reviews of the remaining nine complaints and appeals.
Division staff gave us various reasons for why it did not request extensions and document justifications for extensions for these nine complaints and appeals. For example, Nutrition Services’ director stated that her division does not always adhere to UCP regulations and a lack of staffing may be the reason. For another division—Educational Equity—an education administrator explained that some of the complaints were filed before April 2015, when Educational Equity was established, and therefore were not addressed before that time. She stated that Educational Equity was working through the backlog as quickly as possible, was focused on getting requests for information out, and was addressing the cases in the order the responses from the districts were received. When Education does not document requests for extensions and the reasons for extending investigations and reviews, it cannot demonstrate that it is complying with state regulations or that the extended time is justified. Further, it risks unnecessarily placing the welfare and educational rights of students in jeopardy.
In one of the cases we reviewed, Education’s Local Agency Systems Support Office (LASSO) did not issue a decision on a complaint until 384 days after receiving it—at which point it concluded that the district that was the subject of the complaint had been noncompliant. LASSO handles complaints and appeals related to local control funding formulas or local control and accountability plans, which a state law made subject to UCP effective July 2013. According to the LASSO education programs consultant (programs consultant) responsible for investigating the complaint, the delays in this investigation were caused by the district’s failure to provide documentation Education repeatedly requested for nearly eight months. He explained that Education even conducted an on‑site visit to the district, but that the district could not locate the documents pertinent to the complaint. Although regulations state that the failure of a party to cooperate may result in a decision adverse to the party, the programs consultant stated that Education had little previous occasion to consider application of this regulation because the statute requiring the use of UCP for these types of complaints and appeals was new. He also stated that Education generally attempts to support LEAs to help them understand their obligations. However, given that Education ultimately required the district to take corrective actions, a delay in issuing its decision resulted in the district unnecessarily remaining out of compliance for more than a year.
We also found that Education took more than 60 days to complete many of the other investigations and reviews it performed during fiscal years 2013–14 through 2015–16. As we discussed earlier, Education’s divisions do not consistently record the same data about the complaints and appeals they receive. Therefore, we compiled our own database of complaints and appeals for seven of the eight divisions that received complaints or appeals during our audit period by reviewing their files and capturing certain information about the complaints and appeals they processed. The only division for which we did not compile a database was the Special Education Division (Special Education), which records its complaints in an electronic database that we obtained. As shown in Figure 2, six divisions received 675 appeals during fiscal years 2013–14 through 2015–16. The divisions closed 243, or 36 percent, of these appeals more than 60 days after receiving them.
Timeliness of the California Department of Education’s Reviews of Appeals by Division
July 1, 2013, Through June 30, 2016
Source: California State Auditor’s review of Education’s appeal files.
Note: This figure does not include divisions that indicated that they did not receive UCP appeals during our audit period.
Additionally, Education received more than 2,900 complaints during fiscal years 2013–14 through 2015–16. As Figure 3 shows, the divisions closed 249 complaints, or 8 percent, more than 60 days after receiving them. Although Education closed most complaints within 60 days, some divisions performed better than others. Specifically, as Figure 3 demonstrates, Special Education received 2,551 of the complaints and completed 2,505, or nearly all of them, within 60 days.
Timeliness of the California Department of Education’s Processing of Complaints by Division
July 1, 2013, Through June 30, 2016
Sources: California State Auditor’s analysis of data obtained from Education’s Special Education Complaint Resolution System and review of Education’s complaint files.
Note 1: Refer to Table 8 for discussion on the reliability of data presented here for the Special Education Division.
Note 2: This figure does not include divisions that indicated that they did not receive UCP complaints during our audit period.
* Although state regulations allow a complainant to appeal to Education a district’s decision on a complaint involving a condition of a facility that poses an emergency or urgent threat, such complaints must first be filed with the principal of the school, or his or her designee, in which the complaint arises. State regulations exclude these complaints from Education’s authority to directly intervene. Therefore, the School Facilities and Transportation Services Division either referred the complaints to the local educational agencies for investigation or denied the complaint.
However, some divisions did not fare as well. In particular, Nutrition Services did not close more than 86 percent of its investigations within 60 days. As shown in Figure 3, Nutrition Services only completed 20 of its complaint cases within 60 days, as required. Using the database we compiled, we determined that 199 days, or nearly seven months, was the median number of days—the midpoint of the range—that Nutrition Services took to complete its investigations, with the longest case taking just over two years to complete. Because UCP regulations specify a time frame for completing complaint investigations, Nutrition Services should have requested an extension before exceeding 60 days to complete an investigation. However, it did not request extensions of time to complete any of the investigations that extended beyond 60 days, nor did it document exceptional circumstances that constituted good cause for extending the investigations, as required by UCP regulations. Nutrition Services’ director acknowledged that Nutrition Services has not always adhered to regulations and that it does not have policies and procedures for handling UCP complaints. Although she believes that a lack of staffing may be the reason for its noncompliance, she stated that Nutrition Services has not performed any analysis to assess or justify requesting additional staff.
Moreover, we noted that the State’s UCP regulations do not conform to federal regulations for the Nutrition Services program requiring it to investigate all complaints at the state level. Specifically, federal regulations require state educational agencies to investigate complaints received or irregularities noted related to their nutrition services programs and to take appropriate action to correct any irregularities. To comply with these regulations, the division director stated that Nutrition Services accepts all complaints as direct intervention, which Education investigates directly without first allowing an LEA to investigate. However, the State’s UCP regulations do not specify that Nutrition Services may accept all complaints as direct intervention without waiting for the LEAs to investigate complaints first. The division director acknowledged that Education adopted regulations in 1991, before many of the current staff members were in the division. She stated the division will look at the need for amended regulations in response to this audit.
When we asked Education’s chief deputy why state regulations do not allow Nutrition Services to accept all UCP complaints under direct intervention so that UCP regulations can align with federal requirements, she referred to state regulations, which indicate that only complaints that meet specific criteria may be handled under direct intervention. She also cited federal regulations for nutrition programs, which require Education to promptly investigate all irregularities noted in connection with the programs. However, she stated that investigation is governed by Education’s own procedures, subject to federal oversight and not by UCP or its timelines. She added that Education is willing to discuss this situation with the United States Department of Agriculture to determine whether it would allow the use of the UCP process to handle future complaints that Education receives directly. However, we noted that Nutrition Services programs have been specifically covered by UCP regulations since the regulations were first adopted. Nevertheless, the State’s UCP regulations do not specify that Nutrition Services may accept all complaints as direct intervention. We believe that complying with UCP regulations, particularly its timelines, would achieve Education’s obligation under federal nutrition regulations to investigate complaints promptly. Therefore, it is important for Education to clarify its regulations to specifically allow Nutrition Services to investigate all complaints it receives as direct intervention.
We also noted that Education has not complied with several UCP provisions related to handling direct intervention complaints. For example, state UCP regulations require that upon receipt of a complaint requesting direct state intervention, Education must immediately notify the complainant by first‑class mail of its determination to accept the complaint without an LEA investigation or decision. UCP regulations also require Education to provide each complainant with written notification of the investigator’s name, the investigation date, and an explanation of the investigation process. Nonetheless, Nutrition Services could not provide documentation that it complied with these requirements for any of the 147 complaints that it investigated and closed between July 2013 and June 2016.
State regulations require Education to issue an investigation report that includes the following within 60 days of the completion of the investigation:
- A summary of the allegations in the complaint.
- A description of the general investigative procedures.
- Citations of applicable law and regulations.
- Findings of fact.
- Required or recommended corrective actions for the LEA to perform.
- A timeline for any corrective actions.
- Notice that any party may request reconsideration of Education’s report within 35 days of receipt of the report.
Source: California Code of Regulations, title 5, section 4664.
Further, Nutrition Services did not always meet the requirements related to issuing investigation reports. As the text box shows, UCP regulations require Education to provide complainants with investigation reports that include specific information. However, Nutrition Services did not send three of the five investigation reports we reviewed to the complainants. When we raised this issue, Nutrition Services’ director stated that her staff acknowledged that they had confused anonymous with confidential in their interpretation of regulations. She stated that once Nutrition Services identifies a complaint as anonymous, it does not respond in writing to the complainant, and in most cases, it does not provide the complainant with the results of the investigation. State regulations require that Education allow for anonymity if complainants are in danger of retaliation and would suffer immediate and irreparable harm if they filed their complaints with the LEAs. However, regulations require that the complainants must present Education with verifiable evidence that supports their requests to remain anonymous. The division director acknowledged that Nutrition Services is not requiring verifiable evidence from complainants. Further, even if these complainants had requested to remain anonymous, the regulations still require Education to provide them with investigation reports.
Moreover, in our review of the five files, we also found that Nutrition Services did not notify the complainants of their right to request reconsideration. When we raised this concern with Nutrition Services, the director acknowledged that neither its investigation reports nor its closing letters include such notice. Nutrition Services’ director further stated that Nutrition Services does not have a standardized investigative report template that complies with state regulations. She stated she will consider implementing a standardized format to ensure compliance and consistency in the future.
Further, in our reviews of files across all divisions of Education, we also noted inconsistencies in the ways the divisions reported the results of their investigations of complaints or reviews of appeals. Some divisions sent cover letters with their reports attached, some sent the reports only, and some sent only letters summarizing the reports or decisions. Also, some divisions clearly labeled the required elements of their reports, such as the findings of fact and any corrective actions required, while others wrote them in paragraph form, without identifying the required components.
We believe that Education’s lack of central oversight has resulted in these inconsistencies as well as the problems we previously identified among its divisions processing UCP investigations and appeals. Other than Special Education, none of the divisions has established written policies and procedures for investigating UCP complaints and reviewing appeals. Without standard policies and procedures, the divisions are left to interpret the regulations, which cause different divisions to apply different standards and sometimes miss regulatory requirements. As we discuss in the Introduction, state regulations require that LEAs have policies and procedures for the investigation and resolution of UCP complaints. However, the regulations do not include such a requirement for Education’s divisions. When we asked Education’s chief deputy why Education has not required its divisions to have UCP policies and procedures, she responded that Education follows specific guidelines set forth for handling appeals in its regulations. However, as we note, Education’s divisions are not always following the regulations, and the regulations do not always specify time frames for completing reviews of appeals.
To ensure the requirements of the UCP are consistent for complaints and appeals Education handles, the Legislature should codify the UCP regulations to, among other things, do the following:
- Prescribe consistent time frames for completing all investigations of complaints and reviews of appeals by Education.
- Identify a consistent time limit for filing UCP complaints.
To ensure that it consistently processes complaints and appeals in a timely manner and that it investigates and reviews all UCP complaints and appeals in compliance with state law and regulations, by July 2017 Education should designate a central office to receive all complaints and appeals. This central office should do the following:
- Distribute complaints and appeals to the correct divisions for investigation or review.
- Establish a single database to record and track all investigations of complaints and reviews of appeals. This database should capture all data necessary for Education to effectively make informed decisions related to UCP complaints or appeals. At a minimum, the database should capture the date on which Education received each complaint or appeal, the date on which it forwarded the complaint or appeal to the appropriate division for investigation or review, and the date on which it sent the decision to the complainant. The database should also include the type of complaint or appeal, the LEA involved, and the decision.
- Track the divisions’ progress in processing complaints and appeals to ensure the divisions meet all UCP requirements, including documenting exceptional circumstances that constitute good cause for extending investigations beyond 60 days.
- Work with divisions to establish policies and procedures for the divisions to follow when investigating UCP complaints and reviewing appeals. The procedures should identify the individuals or units responsible for investigating complaints and reviewing appeals, the steps and time frames for conducting investigations and reviews, the requirements for issuing decisions, and the documentation that should be retained in the files.
- Establish and distribute a standard investigation report format that includes the required elements for the divisions to use when processing UCP complaints.
- Monitor the divisions’ decisions and reports on complaints and appeals to ensure that they comply with requirements.
To ensure that its regulations are consistent and align with state and federal requirements, by July 2017 Education should initiate revising its regulations as follows:
- Require its divisions to complete investigations of complaints and reviews of appeals related to all programs within 60 days of Education receiving them, including providing its decisions in writing to complainants, unless otherwise specified in statute or federal regulations.
- Allow Nutrition Services to investigate all complaints as direct intervention.
To ensure that it complies with UCP regulations and makes complainants aware of the outcome of investigations, beginning February 2017 Nutrition Services should provide them with investigation reports, even when the complainants request anonymity from the LEAs involved.
LEAs Have Not Ensured That Their Processes for Addressing UCP Complaints Are Efficient and Meet All State Requirements
- Both Los Angeles Unified and San Juan Unified received many complaints during fiscal years 2013–14 through 2015–16 that did not fall within the purview of the State’s UCP regulations. The time that LEA staff spent processing non‑UCP complaints is time they could have otherwise used to address UCP complaints.
- The three LEAs we reviewed did not always complete their investigations within the 60‑day time frame state regulations require. For some of these investigations, the LEAs also did not obtain agreements from the complainants to extend the time frame even though the regulations require such agreements.
Weaknesses in LEAs’ Intake Processes
As the Introduction discusses, the UCP covers many types of complaints, which the LEAs have primary responsibility for investigating. However, similar to the divisions at Education, the three LEAs we reviewed record and maintain different information about the complaints they process. Therefore, to identify the number and type of UCP complaints each of the LEAs received and closed in fiscal years 2013–14 through 2015–16, we reviewed their files and compiled our own databases.
However, Los Angeles Unified staff informed us very late in the audit process that it had not identified all UCP complaints as we requested. Specifically, when we first visited Los Angeles Unified, we asked for all UCP complaints that it received during our review period. Although Williams complaints—complaints about instructional materials, teacher vacancies or misassignments, and school facilities—have different requirements for the timeliness of issuing decisions, the content of the decisions, and for appeals, they are covered under UCP regulations. Los Angeles Unified staff informed us, after we completed our fieldwork and met with them to discuss our findings, that they tracked Williams complaints separately because of the differences in the requirements and that they had not provided those to us as part of the UCP complaints. We found that Los Angeles Unified received nearly 1,700 Williams complaints during our review period. Although we compiled our own database of non‑Williams complaints that Los Angeles Unified received, because Los Angeles Unified did not inform us that it tracked the Williams complaints separately and because of the large volume of such complaints, we used the data that Los Angeles Unified captures in its tracking summary for Williams complaints.
Excluding the Williams complaints that Los Angeles Unified received, as shown in Table 3, our review at Los Angeles Unified, San Diego Unified, and San Juan Unified found that a large portion of the UCP complaints they received related to bullying, discrimination, and harassment. The remaining complaints mostly related to special education or pupil fees. The predominant types of complaints for each LEA varied. For example, although only 1 percent of the 785 non‑Williams complaints that Los Angeles Unified received involved pupil fees, 66 of the 133 non‑Williams complaints that San Diego Unified received, or 50 percent, were related to pupil fees. However, we noted that one individual filed 64 of the 66 complaints with San Diego Unified.
Number and Types of Complaints Received and Closed
Fiscal Years 2013–14 Through 2015–16
Sources: California State Auditor’s review of files related to complaints received and investigated by Los Angeles Unified, San Diego Unified, and San Juan Unified between July 1, 2013, and June 30, 2016; and Los Angeles Unified’s Williams Complaint Tracking Summary for July 1, 2013, through June 30, 2016.
Note: Refer to Table 8 for discussion on the reliability of data presented here for Los Angeles Unified’s Williams compalints.
* Not UCP includes 29 personnel‑related complaints that San Juan Unified investigated through the UCP.
† Other includes types of UCP complaints where the total complaints received among all three LEAs was less than three. Further, it includes UCP complaints that did not fit under any of the other types of complaints listed in this table.
‡ In San Diego Unified, 64 of 66 pupil fee complaints were submitted by the same complainant.
§ Williams complaints are those regarding instructional materials, teacher vacancies or misassignments, and school facilities.
Both Los Angeles Unified and San Juan Unified received a significant portion of complaints that were not covered by the UCP. Specifically, Los Angeles Unified concluded that 340, or 43 percent, of the 785 non‑Williams complaints it received from July 2013 through June 2016 did not fall within the UCP’s purview. Of the 75 complaints San Juan Unified received in the same period, 41 complaints, or 55 percent, did not meet UCP criteria.
The time that LEA staff spent processing non‑UCP complaints is time they could have otherwise dedicated to investigating UCP complaints. The director of Los Angeles Unified’s Educational Equity Compliance Office within its Office of the General Counsel—its designated UCP office—stated that her office does not formally track the hours that staff spend on each complaint. However, she estimates that her staff spend between two and 16 hours to review each complaint and related evidence before determining whether the complaint is covered under the UCP. The director’s estimate suggests that staff spent at least 680 hours and perhaps as much as 5,440 hours on the 340 non‑UCP complaints it received during fiscal years 2013–14 through 2015–16. Similarly, San Juan Unified averaged more than 30 days from the day it received 41 complaints to the day it determined they were not UCP or sent the decisions for those complaints. These 41 complaints included 12 complaints that San Juan Unified determined were not UCP and 29 employee personnel‑related complaints that it incorrectly investigated as UCP, as we discuss later.
When LEAs spend significant amounts of time on non‑UCP complaints, it may be more difficult for them to meet the required time frames for completing investigations. For example, as we discuss in more detail later, Los Angeles Unified did not issue decisions within the required 60 days for 216 of the 785 non‑Williams complaints it received during the three‑year period we reviewed. Moreover, Los Angeles Unified took more than 100 days to finish 27 of these investigations. Although San Juan Unified exceeded the 60‑day time frame for only one of its 75 complaints, the point remains that receiving a larger number of complaints that are not covered by the UCP can take time away from investigating those that do meet UCP criteria, making LEAs’ processes less efficient.
The complainants’ lack of understanding of UCP criteria may have contributed to the large number of complaints that the LEAs received that did not meet those criteria. In fact, as we discuss in Appendix B, 16 of the 84 LEAs that responded to our survey indicated that parents and students are generally not aware of the UCP process, and 36 other LEAs indicated that parents and students are aware that a UCP process exists, but do not understand where to submit their UCP complaint or what issues the UCP covers. In alignment with regulations, the LEAs we reviewed have policies that require them to notify parents of their LEA complaint procedures. However, the director at Los Angeles Unified told us that parents receive a large amount of literature and may not always have the opportunity to review all the information provided.
Los Angeles Unified’s director also stated that when individuals search LEAs’ websites for information, they use keyword searches for complaints. As part of its Special Education Division, Los Angeles Unified has a complaints response unit specifically responsible for addressing concerns of parents of students with disabilities, which the director stated is also advertised in a variety of ways. However, its website advertises its UCP office as the primary contact for a variety of other types of complaints. As a result, many parents researching contact information for filing a complaint—regardless of whether it fell within the purview of UCP—would be redirected to the UCP complaint process.
Establishing a mechanism that allows a structured but less formal process for individuals to discuss with LEAs how best to address their complaints and to determine whether those complaints fall under the purview of the UCP could help LEAs more efficiently process UCP complaints. In contrast to Los Angeles Unified and San Juan Unified, San Diego Unified received a relatively small percentage of complaints that were not covered by the UCP. As shown in Table 3, San Diego Unified—whose Legal Services Office handles its UCP complaints—identified only 10, or 8 percent, of the 133 non‑Williams complaints it received during fiscal years 2013–14 through 2015–16 as falling outside UCP criteria.
When we analyzed why San Diego Unified had fewer non‑UCP complaints, we noted that it had established a Quality Assurance Office to enable students and their families, staff, and community members to ask questions or voice concerns related to its educational programs and services. Although San Diego Unified annually provides information related to the UCP to all students and parents, its website directs users with concerns or complaints to the Quality Assurance Office rather than to its Legal Services Office. According to its data, the Quality Assurance Office received 11,400 complaints or inquiries from July 2014—when the office began tracking the information electronically—to July 2016, many of which did not fall under the UCP.
The Quality Assurance Office’s internal procedures state that it will explain the UCP and provide the UCP form when allegations fall under the UCP. Notwithstanding these procedures, the Quality Assurance Office’s director stated that it also handles complaints informally that could fall under the formal UCP process and that it is generally able to resolve such issues using an informal process, as UCP regulations allow. This approach helps San Diego Unified minimize the number of complaints that its Legal Services Office has to address. In fact, as we discuss later in Appendix B, of the 84 LEAs that responded to our survey, 77 indicated that they attempt to informally resolve complaints.
In addition to informally resolving complaints, two of the LEAs that responded to our survey indicated that they were aware of other complaint process models that might serve the State more effectively than the UCP. One suggested alternative dispute resolution (ADR), which its assistant superintendent described as a structured process in which the parties involved in a dispute agree to meet and work together to resolve the issues with an uninvolved third party who mediates and gives each party an opportunity to speak and share their side of the dispute. She also explained that the mediator then helps the parties brainstorm ideas to resolve the issues, which often requires compromises by both parties. She further explained that if the parties are unable to reach an agreement, they discuss what the next steps would be, for example, filing a UCP complaint.
The other district suggested restorative practices, or mediation. The district’s superintendent explained that this process is one in which the parties involved acknowledge a wrongdoing and meet to restore the situation or relationship. She also explained that in relation to the UCP, the restorative practice would be an informal first step to resolve an issue or complaint before a formal UCP complaint is filed. Under UCP regulations, LEAs have the ability to use alternative methods to resolve complaints, including mediation. Therefore, LEAs could use processes such as ADR or restorative practices as part of their UCP to resolve complaints.
We also found some evidence suggesting that some LEAs may have struggled at times to understand whether certain complaints fall under the UCP’s purview. Specifically, of the 75 complaints San Juan Unified received and closed from July 2013 through June 2016, 29 were employee personnel complaints. According to San Juan Unified’s general counsel, it investigates these complaints under the UCP because she and legal staff interpret the state law as requiring them to do so when complainants allege bullying, discrimination, or harassment. However, we disagree with San Juan Unified’s interpretation of law.
Although UCP regulations refer to unlawful discrimination, harassment, intimidation, or bullying in any program or activity conducted by an LEA, the regulatory structure and history make clear that these requirements apply only to the recipients of those programs or activities—that is, pupils. Moreover, UCP regulations state that the UCP does not cover employment discrimination complaints, which should be forwarded to the Department of Fair Employment and Housing.
In an additional interpretation concern, the director of Los Angeles Unified’s UCP office stated that although discrimination and bullying have legal definitions under state and federal law, complainants often use more common colloquial meanings when filing their complaints. She stated she therefore believes that in many instances UCP regulations obligate the LEA to investigate these complaints under the UCP. However, she told us that the investigations often result in reports stating that the alleged actions did not rise to the legal bar of discrimination or bullying. The general counsel at San Juan Unified shared a similar concern and stated that it would be beneficial for Education to provide more guidance regarding what types of complaints do or do not fall under the UCP.
LEAs’ Inconsistent Compliance With UCP Regulations
Our review found that the three LEAs did not consistently comply with all UCP requirements. Most significantly, two of the three LEAs we reviewed did not always obtain the required agreements from complainants before extending investigations beyond 60 days for non‑Williams complaints. UCP regulations require an LEA to conduct and complete an investigation of the complaint and prepare a written decision within 60 days from the date of the receipt of the complaint. The regulations state that this period may be extended by a written agreement of the complainant. As Table 4 shows, not including Williams complaints, which have different time frames for investigations, the three LEAs did not complete investigations within the 60 days for 276 of their 993 non‑Williams complaints received during fiscal years 2013–14 through 2015–16.2 The investigations that exceeded the required time frame ranged from 61 days to 213 days. In 141 of these 276 cases, the LEAs did not obtain extension agreements from the complainants. We found evidence of extension agreements for only two of the 59 investigations that San Diego Unified completed after the required 60 days.
Staff at the LEAs identified a number of reasons why investigations might exceed the required time frame without the complainants’ agreement. For example, staff at Los Angeles Unified told us that complainants often do not respond when it asks for extensions. They further stated that complaints are frequently complex and may contain multiple allegations. Further, both Los Angeles Unified and San Diego Unified stated that it is challenging to complete investigations during extended school breaks when staff members and parents are usually unavailable. In fact, staff at San Diego Unified stated that school breaks can prevent it from closing complaints within the time limit. The staff for Los Angeles Unified stated that although it makes every effort to complete investigations within 60 days in the absence of agreements for extension, it cannot always collect sufficient information to make comprehensive conclusions or findings in that time frame.
Timeliness of Complaint Investigation by Three Local Educational Agencies
July 1, 2013, Through June 30, 2016
Sources: Review of files maintained by Los Angeles Unified, San Diego Unified, and San Juan Unified for all complaints they received and investigated from July 1, 2013, through June 30, 2016.
Note: The UCP regulations apply to all complaints that LEAs receive through their UCP process. Although LEAs may ultimately issue a decision that a complaint is not within the purview of the UCP, until it makes that determination, it must follow UCP requirements. Therefore, we included in this table the Not UCP complaints that LEAs received, as shown in Table 3.
Our review of 15 complaint investigations at Los Angeles Unified found some support for the assertion that completing comprehensive investigations within 60 days is not always possible. For example, Los Angeles Unified received a complaint alleging that a school’s single‑sex classes constituted gender discrimination. The information in the investigation file demonstrates that Los Angeles Unified devoted many resources to the investigation. The investigation entailed evaluating 16 classrooms, administering 31 student surveys, and reviewing written statements or interviews from four individuals. Los Angeles Unified issued its report in 62 days, or two days late. However, according to the director of the UCP office, this investigation would have taken at least 90 days to complete had she not assigned the case to herself to investigate. The complainant appealed Los Angeles Unified’s decision to Education, and Education spent more than 90 days reviewing the investigation and findings. Eventually, Education referred the complaint back to Los Angeles Unified for further investigation because the decision lacked findings of fact and conclusions of law for two of the five allegations. After reviewing the revised decision, Education took an additional 66 days to make its final decision.
In addition to difficulties completing complex investigations within the required 60 days, we also found 61 instances in which Los Angeles Unified missed its investigation deadlines by one to three days. In its Federal Program Monitoring review in March and April 2015, Education concluded that the district had not consistently issued written decisions within the 60‑day timeline and had not consistently received written agreements to extend the timelines. The director of Los Angeles Unified’s UCP office also explained that in many of these cases, staff had incorrectly calculated the investigations’ deadlines as two months from the receipt of the complaint rather than 60 days, and that she has implemented immediate changes to rectify this disparity. We found a significant reduction in past‑due investigations from fiscal year 2013–14 through fiscal year 2015–16. Because the LEAs cannot guarantee that complainants will grant extensions upon request, Los Angeles Unified’s director stated that she no longer anticipates this option and therefore uses any resources available to complete investigations within the 60 days. In the absence of extension agreements, the director stated that Los Angeles Unified has at times expended significant resources to meet its deadlines. Considering that UCP regulations allow Education to extend the investigation time under exceptional circumstances by adequately documenting its reasons in the absence of an agreement from the complainant, we believe that similar provisions for LEAs can help address some of the difficulties that they sometimes face.
In addition, we did not always find evidence that San Diego Unified requested extensions for its investigations when needed. For example, in our review of 15 of San Diego Unified’s investigation files, we identified six investigations that it completed after 60 days, with the length of the investigations ranging from 66 to 189 days. However, the files did not contain evidence that San Diego Unified had requested extensions for four of these investigations. Staff could not explain why San Diego Unified had failed to request extensions in these instances.
In the absence of an agreed‑upon extension, parents, students, and community members cannot be assured that the delays in investigations are justified. For example, one of the 15 complaint investigations we reviewed at San Diego Unified alleged illegal pupil fees. San Diego Unified issued a decision on this complaint 182 days after it received the complaint, or 122 days late. However, we did not find documentation that San Diego Unified requested an extension as required. Further, we did not find evidence in the investigation file to support that the additional time was warranted.
Of the three LEAs we reviewed, San Juan Unified was the only one that consistently closed investigations within 60 days. In fact, of the 75 complaints San Juan Unified investigated and closed from July 2013 through June 2016, we found only one investigation that exceeded 60 days. When we asked San Juan Unified’s general counsel why it exceeded the time frame and did not request an extension in this one instance, she explained the complainant sent the complaint to a school and the general counsel’s office was not aware of it until it later received notice from Education. We verified her explanation through our review of the complaint file.
The Uniform Complaint Procedures regulations require that local educational agencies issue written decisions to complainants that include the following:
- Findings of fact based on the evidence.
- A conclusion of law.
- The disposition of the complaint.
- The rationale for such disposition.
- Corrective actions if warranted.
- Notice of the complainant's right to appeal the decision to the California Department of Education (Education).
- The procedures to be followed for initiating an appeal to Education.
Source: California Code of Regulations, title 5, section 4631.
However, San Juan Unified did not always include all of the required elements when it issued decisions regarding complaints. As the text box shows, UCP regulations identify a number of elements that LEAs must include when issuing their decisions. For example, UCP regulations require that the LEA must include in its decision a conclusion of the law—whether the school or the LEA violated the law as alleged in the complaint. Nevertheless, San Juan Unified’s decisions did not consistently conclude whether the LEA or its schools violated laws. In one complaint regarding pupil fees, for instance, San Juan Unified’s investigation report did not clearly conclude whether the school in question had violated a state law by requiring students to pay for uniforms. Instead, the investigation report concluded in part that while it was not the intent of the school to suggest that school supplies were required to be purchased by families, the complainant understood it that way. The general counsel for San Juan Unified acknowledged that the district’s written decisions did not always specifically state whether the district or the school was in compliance with statutory requirements. However, she did not explain why the decisions did not include this required element.
Further, in some instances, San Juan Unified’s decisions for substantiated complaints did not contain actions that we would consider corrective actions. In fact, of the 75 complaints that it received and completed during our review period, San Juan Unified did not provide corrective actions with a specific timeline in its reports for three of the seven substantiated complaints. For example, in one complaint decision, San Juan Unified acknowledged that a teacher discriminated against a student and possibly denied him an opportunity. However, instead of requiring a corrective action with a specific timeline for implementation, the district simply recommended that the teacher be provided professional training, with no timeline for completing the training.
Another decision included a recommendation without a specific timeline for implementation, and a third decision included action the district expected schools to take to address noncompliance, but did not specify a timeline for completing this action. When we asked the general counsel at San Juan Unified about the lack of corrective actions and timelines, she told us that she considers the recommendations included in the reports to be the corrective actions. However, we believe that without specific required actions and timelines, schools and district departments may be unsure of what is required of them, and the issue causing the noncompliance may not be remedied promptly.
Our review for a selection of Williams complaints at two of the three LEAs that received such complaints found that Los Angeles Unified did not always meet the required time frames for Williams complaints. State law requires an LEA to remedy the issue identified in a Williams complaint and issue a decision within 30 working days and 45 working days, respectively, of receiving the complaint. Of the 29 Williams complaints we reviewed at Los Angeles Unified, it did not remedy the issues in the complaint within 30 working days for three complaints. For example, one complaint alleged that the heating, ventilation, and air conditioning were not functioning at one of its schools. According to the available documentation, Los Angeles Unified did not remedy this issue until 40 working days after it received the complaint, which is 10 working days more than allowed. Similarly, it exceeded the required time frame for the other two complaints by 11 working days. Further, it did not provide documentation to identify the remedy date or the documentation did not identify the remedy date for seven other complaints.
To emphasize LEAs’ ability to use alternative methods to resolve complaints, including mediation, alternative dispute resolution, or restorative practices, when codifying the UCP regulations, the Legislature should specify these as possible methods for resolving complaints.
To make the provisions for extending investigations consistent between Education and LEAs, when codifying the UCP regulations, the Legislature should allow LEAs to extend investigations. Specifically, in the absence of an agreement from the complainant, allow LEAs to extend an investigation under exceptional circumstances that constitute good cause if the LEAs document and support with evidence the reasons for the extensions.
To minimize the number of complaints they receive through the UCP process that do not fall within the purview of UCP regulations, Los Angeles Unified and San Juan Unified should establish a mechanism that allows specified individuals for the districts to promptly discuss with complainants how best to address their issues or complaints and to determine whether their complaints fall under the purview of the UCP before they file complaints. To increase the efficiency and effectiveness of LEAs’ UCP processes, Education should work with those LEAs throughout the State that receive a disproportionately high number of non‑UCP complaints through the UCP process to assess the potential benefits of establishing similar mechanisms.
To ensure that they can defend their extensions of complaint investigations that are authorized by existing UCP regulations, Los Angeles Unified, San Juan Unified, and San Diego Unified should obtain agreements from complainants before extending investigations beyond the required 60 days.
To ensure its decisions are clear and comply with state regulations, San Juan Unified should include in its investigation reports all required elements, including clear conclusions of law and corrective actions with specific actions and timelines for completion. If it believes the requirements in UCP regulations are not clear, San Juan Unified should seek guidance from Education.
To ensure that it meets the legally required time frames for remedying issues alleged in Williams complaints, Los Angeles Unified’s Educational Equity Compliance Office should work closely with the divisions responsible for addressing issues in the Williams complaints to ensure they are completed within the required time frame. Further, it should ensure that it maintains the appropriate documentation to demonstrate that it complied with requirements for remedying the issues in Williams complaints within 30 working days.
To ensure that its regulations are consistent and align with state and federal requirements, Education should revise its regulations to allow LEAs to extend investigations under exceptional circumstances that constitute good cause if the LEAs document and support with evidence the reasons for the extensions.
After it makes the recommended regulatory changes to allow extensions under exceptional circumstances, Education should review LEAs’ extensions to investigations as part of its Federal Program Monitoring to ensure that LEAs’ documentation is sufficient and that their reasons adequately justify such extensions.
Oversight of Charter Schools’ Compliance With the UCP Can Be Improved
- Two of the LEAs we reviewed did not identify instances in which four of the charter schools—two that one LEA monitors and two that the other LEA monitors—did not comply with state law and UCP regulations. Additionally, Education does not review charter schools authorized by LEAs as part of its monitoring activities.
- Education’s monitoring of LEAs’ compliance with UCP regulations did not identify instances of noncompliance by one LEA we reviewed.
LEAs and Education Did Not Identify Noncompliance by Charter Schools
Two of three LEAs we reviewed—Los Angeles Unified and San Diego Unified—did not always identify instances of noncompliance with UCP by charter schools. Charter schools are individual LEAs that have been authorized by either a school district’s governing board, a county board of education, or the State Board of Education (board). According to Education’s Charter Schools Division staff, there are about 1,140 charter schools in California—including fewer than 30 state‑authorized charter schools and more than 1,100 LEA‑authorized charter schools. Nearly 300 of these 1,140 charter schools operated in Los Angeles Unified, accounting for nearly a quarter of its total student population. According to state law and Education’s website, each charter school’s authorizing entity is responsible for ensuring it operates in compliance with all applicable laws and the terms of its charter. Therefore, we reviewed both districts’ processes for ensuring the two charter schools that we selected in each district complied with UCP requirements in general.
Los Angeles Unified’s process requires it to conduct annual oversight reviews of its charter schools that include evaluations of their compliance with the UCP. However, in its fiscal year 2015–16 reviews, Los Angeles Unified did not identify the deficiencies we noted for the two charter schools we reviewed. Specifically, we found that one of the charter school’s UCP notices, policies, and procedures did not meet the requirements of UCP regulations. The charter school’s notices, policies, and procedures did not identify all programs or activities the UCP covers, such as pupil fees, child nutrition programs, and special education programs. In fact, it only specifically identifies discrimination, harassment, intimidation, and bullying, yet it does not advise of civil law remedies that may be available under state and federal laws for such complaints and it does not ensure complainants are protected from retaliation as required. When we asked Los Angeles Unified why it did not identify these same deficiencies in its annual oversight review of this charter school, a senior coordinator in the Charter Schools Division stated that oversight of independent charter schools involves a review of the systems and process in place and referred to Los Angeles Unified’s annual site visit report. However, in our review of the fiscal year 2015–16 annual site visit report, which was provided by Los Angeles Unified as the most recent review for this charter school, we did not find any noted areas of improvement or corrective actions related to the UCP.
We also identified that the other charter school’s UCP notice and policy were not consistent with UCP regulations in that it did not include the person or unit responsible for receiving complaints, investigating complaints, and ensuring compliance. The senior coordinator responsible for ensuring this charter school’s compliance stated that the person or unit responsible for receiving complaints is identified on the UCP complaint form. According to the senior coordinator, the school staff explained to her that the procedures, policies, and forms are combined to collectively represent policies and procedures, and therefore she believed the school was compliant. However, we disagree with her determination because UCP regulations specifically state that this information must be included in the school’s notice and policy. Additionally, the notice and policy did not inform stakeholders of civil law remedies that may be available under state and federal discrimination, harassment, intimidation, and bullying laws, or notice of the requirements relating to pupil fees. Further, the policy stated that the school would investigate and resolve UCP complaints in accordance with the school’s complaint procedures. However, Los Angeles Unified did not disclose that the school had not developed the procedures it referenced in its policy.
Similar to Los Angeles Unified, San Diego Unified conducted reviews of charter schools it authorized that included determining whether the two charter schools we reviewed have policies, procedures, and forms. State law and UCP regulations require LEAs to translate all written materials sent to parents or guardians to languages other than English if that other language is the primary language for at least 15 percent of the pupils enrolled in a public school. However, San Diego Unified did not note in its fiscal year 2015–16 review reports that the two charter schools had not provided UCP information in Somali, even though it was a required language. According to a program manager in San Diego’s Office of Charter Schools, the district conducts reviews of where the charter school has UCP information available and ensures that it posts and provides all necessary UCP notices, brochures, and forms. However, she stated that the district does not currently review whether charter schools provide UCP information in all required languages, but told us the district could adopt that practice. Furthermore, after we shared our concerns about the two charter schools, San Diego Unified contacted both of them to ensure that they translated UCP information into Somali. San Diego Unified requested that the two charter schools provide the district with documentation of the translations once they are complete.
Because of the large number of charter schools in the State and the deficiencies we found with the two charter schools in Los Angeles Unified and the two in San Diego Unified, we are concerned that Education does not include LEA‑authorized charter schools in its UCP compliance reviews. The director of Education’s Charter School Division (division director) stated that the division monitors only state‑authorized charter schools and provides technical support to authorizing LEAs. Education requires state‑authorized charter schools to post their complaint procedures to their websites. According to the division director, staff monitors the state‑authorized charter schools’ websites prior to each annual visit and on an ongoing basis to determine whether there is a concern that requires corrective action. However, Education does not monitor compliance with the UCP for the more than 1,100 LEA‑authorized charter schools. Although Education’s Categorical Complaints Management completed reviews of Los Angeles Unified and San Diego Unified in fiscal year 2014–15, it did not review any LEA‑authorized charter schools for UCP compliance. An education administrator for Categorical Complaints Management stated that Education does not include LEA‑authorized charter schools in the review process because Education is unsure how to apply UCP requirements to charter schools.
Although charter schools are exempt from many requirements that apply to public schools, they are not exempt from the responsibility to protect pupils’ rights related to specified state and federal programs, such as Special Education and No Child Left Behind, including the responsibility to adopt a UCP. Therefore, we believe Education should apply UCP requirements to all charter schools in the same manner as it applies those requirements to other LEAs.
Education Can Improve Its Monitoring of LEAs
As we describe in the Introduction, federal laws and regulations, as well as state laws, require Education to monitor LEAs to ensure their compliance with a broad range of fiscal and program requirements of federal education programs. To perform this monitoring, Education’s Federal Program Monitoring office coordinates with its other divisions that specialize in monitoring its various programs. According to its administrator, after the Federal Program Monitoring office has selected the LEAs for review in a given year, it publishes the list online and each of the programs decides the extent of its participation in the review.
According to Education, it selects the majority of the LEAs it reviews each year based on four main criteria: academic achievement, fiscal analysis, program size, and compliance history. It randomly selects the remaining LEAs (about 5 percent or about six LEAs). According to the administrator of the Federal Program Monitoring office, program managers from participating program divisions occasionally recommend additions and substitutions to the initial list of LEAs based on programmatic requirements. For example, a division may request additions or substitutions based on an LEA’s audit history or total entitlement.
Categorical Complaints Management, the office within Education that is responsible for reviewing LEAs’ compliance with UCP requirements during the Federal Program Monitoring reviews, selects LEAs for UCP review based on several risk factors. Some of these risk factors include whether the LEAs have had appeals processed by Categorical Complaints Management within the previous two years, LEAs’ compliance histories, and whether LEAs have had a UCP review in the past four years. Therefore, depending on the specific information about a selected LEA, such as its history of UCP compliance and appeals, Categorical Complaints Management may opt not to review a selected LEA.
Categorical Complaints Management’s latest review of San Juan Unified’s compliance with UCP requirements did not identify issues we found during our audit. Specifically, Education uses a tool when reviewing complaint files to determine whether LEAs’ decisions contain all of the required elements, such as findings of the facts, conclusions of law, and corrective actions, if warranted. As we discussed previously, our review of complaint files at San Juan Unified found that its decisions did not include some of the required elements, such as conclusion of the law and a corrective action, if warranted. Nevertheless, Education’s last review of San Juan Unified’s compliance with the UCP, which was in fiscal year 2012–13, did not identify any deficiencies with its decisions. Although our review focused on complaints from fiscal years 2013–14 through 2015–16, San Juan Unified’s general counsel acknowledged that the general decision format has not changed over the last several years. Based on the frequency of the deficiencies we noted in our review, we would have expected Categorical Complaints Management’s review to have identified some of the same deficiencies we did, but this was not the case.
When we asked the administrator for Education’s Categorical Complaints Management to explain why her office did not identify these deficiencies, she stated that Education’s on‑site monitoring process involves randomly selecting and reviewing a minimum of 10 percent of an LEA’s UCP complaint files from the preceding 12‑month period. She explained that if the reviewer finds any deficiencies in these sample files, he or she is expected to issue a finding of noncompliance. San Juan Unified received and closed 75 complaint files between July 2013 and June 2016, or an average of about 25 complaints per year. If Education reviewed 10 percent of these 25 complaints as part of its monitoring process, it would only review two or three UCP files. However, in our review of 15 UCP complaint files over three fiscal years, we found that San Juan Unified did not include all of the required components in seven of its investigative reports.
We explained the types of deficiencies we found to Education’s chief deputy and asked why Education reviews such a small percentage of complaint files as part of its Federal Program Monitoring and whether Education considers its reviews adequate to ensure compliance. She stated that Federal Program Monitoring is one part of Education’s monitoring activities. She stated that Education monitors compliance with the UCP each time it reviews an appeal, and that the Federal Program Monitoring is an additional mechanism for ensuring compliance. However, given that we noted several instances of noncompliance in the 15 complaints we reviewed at San Juan Unified, we believe that by increasing the number of complaint files it reviews, Education can improve its effectiveness in identifying noncompliance that may exist.
To ensure that all charter schools comply with state law and regulations related to the UCP, to the extent a charter school engages in programs that are subject to UCP, Education and LEAs should do the following:
- Education should by July 2017 include LEA‑authorized charter schools as part of its selection of LEAs when conducting Federal Program Monitoring reviews.
- San Diego Unified should by June 2017 establish procedures to include a review of translation requirements during its monitoring of UCP policies, procedures, and complaint forms at its charter schools.
- Los Angeles Unified should by June 2017 revise its review procedures to verify that all charter schools’ policies and procedures meet the requirements of UCP regulations, including required content, during its monitoring reviews. Los Angeles Unified should implement these revised procedures for oversight beginning in the 2017–18 school year.
To ensure it examines sufficient review samples to detect LEAs’ noncompliance with UCP laws and regulations, Education should revise its UCP monitoring criteria by July 2017 to increase its random selection of complaint files at each LEA to a minimum of 10 percent or 10 complaint files, whichever is greater.
Other Areas We Reviewed
To address the audit objectives that the Joint Legislative Audit Committee (Audit Committee) approved, we reviewed the subject areas shown in Table 5. In the table, we indicate the results of our review and any associated recommendations that we do not discuss in other sections of this report.
Other Areas Reviewed as Part of This Audit
|Education's Prioritization of Complaints|
|Completion of Corrective Actions|
|Guidance on the Time to File Complaints|
|San Diego Unified’s Noncompliance with Its Translation Policies|
|Resolution of Complaints at the Local Level|
|Using Number of Appeals Information for Monitoring Selection|
Sources: California State Auditor’s review of records at Education, Los Angeles Unified, San Diego Unified, and San Juan Unified and interviews with key staff members about the subject areas identified in the table.
Number and Types of Unsubstantiated Complaints Reviewed by Three Local Educational Agencies
July 1, 2013, Through June 30, 2016
Sources: California State Auditor’s review of files related to complaints received and investigated by Los Angeles Unified, San Diego Unified, and San Juan Unified from July 1, 2013, through June 30, 2016.
Note: This table does not include Williams complaints because Los Angeles Unified’s tracking spreadsheets for the nearly 1,700 Williams complaints did not identify whether complaints were substantiated or appealed. Further, San Juan Unified did not receive any Williams complaints. Although San Diego Unified received six Williams complaints, none of these complaints were appealed.
* Other includes any types of UCP complaints in which the three LEAs received a total of less than three complaints and complaints that did not fit under any of the defined programs covered under UCP.
† In San Diego Unified, the same complainant submitted 31 appeals, 29 of which were related to pupil fee complaints.
Scope and Methodology
The Audit Committee directed the California State Auditor to review Education’s UCP process. It further directed us to select and review three LEAs to determine whether the UCP process is effective and ensures a uniform resolution of complaints. Table 7 lists the objectives that the Audit Committee approved and the methods used to address those objectives.
|1||Review and evaluate the laws, rules, and regulations significant to the audit objectives.||Reviewed relevant laws, rules, and regulations related to the UCP.|
|2||For a selection of at least three LEAs, including one in which complainants have appealed a large number of complaints to Education, determine how the UCP functions and whether the process is manageable for the LEAs to administer. In doing so, for each LEA, determine whether the UCP:||
|a. Promotes the efficient use of time and resources, including whether it is efficient to administer because it provides a uniform method to process different types of complaints.||
|b. Is used for issues authorized or identified by statute or regulation.||
|c. Encourages the resolution of complaints by LEAs or at the local level.||
|d. Ensures that remedies are applied to all affected pupils and, when appropriate, any underlying policies or practices are brought into compliance with the laws.||For 15 complaint files reviewed at each LEA, we determined that the corrective actions, when identified, were applied appropriately to either the single complainant or a larger portion of the student population and schools within the district, as appropriate.|
|e. Is easily accessible to parents, including those who do not speak fluent English.||
|3||For the LEAs selected to address Objective 2, and using data covering the last three years, perform the following:|
|a. Determine the number of complaints received by type, including, to the extent the information is available, the legal costs incurred by both parties for each complaint type.||
|b. For a selection of individual complaints, determine whether the LEAs followed their investigation and resolution processes. This selection should cover a broad representation of complaint types and include some that have been appealed to Education.||
|c. For the selection of complaints, determine whether they were addressed and resolved within established and/or reasonable timelines.||
|4||Review and assess Education’s complaint appeals process, including the process used to ensure that the remedies it orders are applied and effectively resolved any problems. For the last three years, determine the following:||In addition to appeals, Education is also responsible for investigating complaints under UCP regulations, if a complainant files a complaint directly with Education and the complaint meets specified criteria. Therefore, we assessed both complaints and appeals at Education as part of this objective.|
|a. The number and types of complaints that are appealed, the number and types of complaints that have been referred back to the LEAs, and the reasons for such referrals.||
|b. The efficiency and timeliness with which Education processes appeals and whether it has sufficient resources to promptly process appeals including, but not limited to, determining the following:||Using the data obtained from Education in 4a, selected a proportional number of complaints and appeals received by each division for a total of 30 complaints and appeals. In selecting these complaints and appeals, ensured a mix of denied, sustained, direct intervention, and those returned to the LEA for further investigation.|
|i. Education’s prioritization of appeals being addressed. For instance, whether severe problems or repeat offenses are handled differently than routine issues.||
|ii. Whether sufficient information is available in the written complaints to resolve appeals without an on‑site investigation.||
|iii. Whether Education has addressed complaints directly without a local complaint being filed and the nature of those complaint(s). Further, determine the criteria for direct state involvement.|
|iv. If applicable, whether the State ensures that remedies are applied to all affected pupils or, when appropriate, ensures that any underlying policies or practices are brought into compliance with the law.||
|v. Whether appeals are addressed and resolved within established and/or reasonable timelines.||
|c. For a selection of appeals covering a broad representation of complaint types, determine whether Education effectively followed its investigation and resolution processes.||
|d. The extent to which Education has used information from its processing of appealed complaints to inform its compliance monitoring activities of LEAs.||
|5||Determine whether other complaint process models—those of other states or others in California, such as the alternative dispute resolution process used in special education—might serve the State more effectively than the UCP.||
|6||Review and assess any other issues that are significant to the audit.||
Sources: California State Auditor's analysis of the Joint Legislative Audit Committee's audit request number 2016‑109 as well as information and documentation identified in the column titled Method.
Assessment of Data Reliability
In performing this audit, we relied on various electronic data files that we obtained from the entities listed in Table 8. The U.S. Government Accountability Office, whose standards we are statutorily required to follow, requires us to assess the sufficiency and appropriateness of computer‑processed information that we use to support our findings, conclusions, or recommendations. Table 8 describes the analyses we conducted using data from these information systems, our methodology for testing them, and the limitations we identified in the data. Although we recognize that these limitations may affect the precision of the numbers we present, there is sufficient evidence in total to support our audit findings, conclusions, and recommendations. Specifically, although we base certain conclusions about the number, length, and resolutions of Special Education’s UCP complaint investigations on these data, our overall findings and the recommendations we make as a result of those findings are supported by our review of additional documentation and evidence, such as individual complaint files.
|INFORMATION SYSTEM||PURPOSE||METHOD AND RESULT||CONCLUSION|
Special Education Complaint Resolution System (SECRS)
(as of August 2016)
|To determine the number and the time to complete investigations of special education‑related UCP complaints received and closed from fiscal years 2013–14 through 2015–16.||
||Not sufficiently reliable.
Although this determination may affect the precision of the numbers we present, sufficient evidence exists in total to support our audit findings, conclusions, and recommendations. Further, we present these data because they represent the best available data source of this information.
|To select UCP complaint records for review.||This purpose did not require a data reliability assessment. Instead, we gained assurance that the population was complete. See completeness testing described above.||We determined that the universe from which we made our selection was complete.|
|Los Angeles Unified
Williams Complaint Tracking Summary
(as of December 2016)
|To determine the number of Williams complaints received and closed from fiscal years 2013–14 through 2015–16.||
||Not sufficiently reliable.
Although this determination may affect the precision of the numbers we present, sufficient evidence exists in total to support our audit findings, conclusions, and recommendations. Further, we present these data because they represent the best available data source of this information.
|To select Williams complaint records for review.||This purpose did not require a data reliability assessment. Instead, we gained assurance that the population was complete. See completeness testing described above.||We determined that the universe from which we made our selection was complete.|
Source: California State Auditor’s analysis of various documents, interviews, and data from Education and Los Angeles Unified.
We conducted this audit under the authority vested in the California State Auditor by Section 8543 et seq. of the California Government Code and according to generally accepted government auditing standards. Those standards require that we plan and perform the audit to obtain sufficient, appropriate evidence to provide a reasonable basis for our findings and conclusions based on our audit objectives specified in the Scope and Methodology section of the report. We believe that the evidence obtained provides a reasonable basis for our findings and conclusions based on our audit objectives.
ELAINE M. HOWLE, CPA
Date: January 31, 2017
Tammy Lozano, CPA, CGFM, Audit Principal
Kris D. Patel
Karen Jenks, MBA
Charles H. Meadows III, CPA
Alejandro Raygoza, MPA
J. Christopher Dawson, Sr. Staff Counsel
For questions regarding the contents of this report, please contact Margarita Fernández, Chief of Public Affairs, at 916.445.0255.
2 Under UCP regulations, an LEA must remedy the issue identified in a Williams complaint and issue a decision within 30 working days and 45 working days, respectively, of receiving the complaint. As a result, we assessed LEAs’ compliance with UCP requirements for investigating Williams complaints separately from all other complaints that LEAs received and investigated during our review period. We discuss our results here. Go back to text