Board seeks to restore trust; calls for graduation audit

Seeking to restore public trust after allegations made in a recent state audit of its graduation records, the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board voted unanimously Thursday to direct Superintendent Bernard Taylor to find an outside group to conduct yet another, more extensive audit.

Board President David Tatman said the review needs to be done by outsiders in order to clear the stain left upon school system employees.

“Everybody is impugned by this,” Tatman said. “This audit gives us the opportunity to dig down deeper … and keep this from ever happening again.”

A handful of elected officials showed up Thursday to offer support to the school system and question the audit and state officials behind it.

“It’s inherent upon us as community members to say that we feel that these allegations, allegations, allegations, and I’ll say that another time, allegations, have not been proven to be true,” state Rep. Pat Smith, D-Baton Rouge, said of the state audit.

“Continue to stand for what’s right,” said Carolyn Hill, a member of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, to board members.

Meanwhile, St. George supporters, days after labeling the state audit the worst scandal in parish history and calling for the resignations of those involved, failed to show up at Thursday’s meeting despite a call to their members to pack the board meeting.

Soon after the state audit was released, Taylor laid out the basics of a required corrective action plan, due to the state by April 4, which would establish audit teams, mandate training for school administrators and create an internal system to track students who exit the school system. That plan is not yet done.

“We’re in uncharted waters here,” general counsel Domoine Rutledge said.

Rutledge said staff members have begun reaching out to groups that might be able to conduct an audit and are trying to determine all that it should entail.

“Before you can implement a corrective action plan, you have to understand what you’re correcting,” Rutledge said.

The audit, made public Sunday night, sampled roughly 5 percent of graduates from 2010 to 2013.

Auditors found about 7 percent of those sampled earned grades or credits that differed from those the school system later reported to the state. Auditors stopped short of determining whether these errors were inadvertent or represented intentional fraud by school-level administrators.

Auditors also pulled a sample of three years’ worth of students who transferred either out of state or to private or home schools in-state, and found that school officials rarely followed up to see if those students actually changed schools.

If those transfers can’t be substantiated, the school system may have to reclassify them as dropouts.

The audit also probes into a case that sparked the investigation in which a student was allowed to graduate despite lacking the necessary credits.

The audit is in the hands of the state inspector general and the legislative auditor for possible further investigation.

Once the state and the school system complete the comprehensive review of graduation records, the state may decide to recalculate individual school performance scores for years past as well as scores for the entire school system.

Rutledge said he’s begun receiving requested documentation from the state and is already finding flaws in the state’s inquiry.

“There were a host of files that the state said were missing that the state didn’t even look at,” he said.

Board member Jerry Arbour urged Taylor to help make sure that students who are short of the credits they need to graduate are helped.

“I want to make sure we that we help some children that are impacted by the actions of some adults in this matter,” Arbour said.

“We are not issuing diplomas if we cannot verify it from cradle to grave,” Taylor responded.

Elected officials who spoke up Thursday said they are conducting their own inquiries, saying they think East Baton Rouge Parish is being unfairly singled out.

“There is an effort among others to attack the East Baton Rouge Parish school system, to close it down and give it to other folks,” said state Rep. Alfred Williams, D-Baton Rouge.

Rep. Smith questioned whether the state really does conduct random audits similar to the one the local school system just underwent.

“When I know that one district has been audited for 15 years, I know there’s nothing random about it,” she said.