Debate still raging over accuracy of EBR graduation records

Figuring out whether students are staying in school and earning enough credits to graduate from Baton Rouge public high schools has provoked two audits and a soon-to-be-released report from the Legislative Auditor’s Office.

So far, though, the answer as to whether problems exist is proving elusive because key records that would answer such questions remain incomplete or missing, despite considerable efforts to find them.

Critics of the East Baton Rouge Parish school system consider the missing and incomplete records evidence of likely wrongdoing; supporters say it actually is a matter of occasionally poor recordkeeping, instances of human error, staff turnover and records so old they were not required to be kept and consequently were tossed.

The audit that first raised questions about graduation rates in East Baton Rouge Parish, conducted by the Louisiana Department of Education and released March 16, has been an ongoing source of controversy.

The finger-pointing began in early January even before the audit was launched. Unnamed sources told Baton Rouge news organizations the state was preparing to investigate reports of extensive cheating on tests. The audit, however, didn’t end up focusing on the cheating issue.

Chas Roemer, president of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, likened the brewing scandal at one point to Watergate. The Committee for the Incorporation of St. George, in a March 18 news release, described it as the “single greatest scandal” in the history of East Baton Rouge Parish.

State Superintendent of Education John White was more cautious in his public statements. Nevertheless, he referred the audit findings to the state Inspector General’s and Legislative Auditor’s offices, saying they involved possible malfeasance and misuse of public funds.

Domoine Rutledge, general counsel of the school system, said none of the statements suggesting a scandal and possible misuse of taxpayer money had merit.

“That is so irresponsible,” Rutledge said.

Rutledge said a second audit that was conducted by Postlethwaite & Netterville at the school system’s direction and released on Thursday, found no evidence of fraud on the part of school staff, although it did show the school system had some problems with recordkeeping.

In May, the school system delivered to the state a lengthy corrective action plan that includes new safeguards meant to prevent similar recordkeeping problems in the future. The system also put off giving out diplomas for weeks to make sure all 2,000 graduates of the class of 2014 had correct transcripts.

The criticism, however, continues.

Lionel Rainey III, a spokesman for the effort to form a new city of St. George and create a new, independent school system, said on Louisiana Public Broadcasting’s “Louisiana Public Square” program Tuesday night that the parish school system is riddled with problems.

“We’re also talking about a school system that is being investigated by the inspector general for a massive cheating scandal,” Rainey said.

State Rep. Pat Smith, D-Baton Rouge, who also was participating in the program, jumped in immediately. She said Legislative Auditor Daryl Purpera will soon send a letter to the state Department of Education laying out its findings.

“There is nothing found to be wrong in the East Baton Rouge Parish school system,” said Smith, a former president of the parish School Board. “You will see that from the legislative auditor when you see the letter. I’ve spoken with him, and he’s told me that.”

A spokeswoman for the Legislative Auditor’s Office acknowledged the office is concluding its inquiry into the parish school system and plans to release it in a few weeks but declined further comment on the matter.

Smith said she spoke to Purpera on Friday and apologized for jumping the gun on his report. She said Purpera has assured her that his office had substantiated none of the accusations of wrongdoing against the school system, although it did confirm that one student was allowed to graduate without having sufficient credits.

The complicated story of that student, who graduated from Glen Oaks High School in 2013, is a main focus of the state’s March audit. School Board member Vereta Lee went public in May to say the student involved was her granddaughter.

On Wednesday, Lee said her granddaughter has belatedly earned the extra credit she needed to graduate.

Rutledge said the legislative auditor got to work in late March and went well beyond what the state Department of Education did in its audit, making unannounced visits to copy reams of school documents.

As far as the Inspector General’s Office, Rutledge said, he’s not aware of any inquiry by that office.

High schools in Louisiana are increasingly judged by their ability to shepherd students all the way to graduation.

Twenty-five percent of a high school’s academic performance score is based on the extent to which ninth-graders graduate on time four years later, a measure known as the cohort graduation rate. Another 25 percent of high school scores are based on a “graduation index” that awards the most points to students with diplomas and zero points to dropouts.

School with scores low enough to earn Fs are subject to sanctions. If they don’t improve after four years, they can be taken over by the state.

In its March audit, the state said it reserved the right to recalculate downward old school performance scores for every student East Baton Rouge Parish couldn’t verify.

The Postlethwaite & Netterville audit was presented to the School Board Thursday night. It retraces the same ground as the state Department of Education audit.

Like the first one, the new audit takes information reported electronically and tries to verify it in the paper records that high schools maintain on every student — records known as cumulative folders.

Postlethwaite & Netterville was able to verify 89 percent of the records that it examined for grades and course credits, an improvement over the state’s inquiry, which was able to verify only 74 percent of the records it examined.

The school system’s auditors also re-examined students who had transferred to a private school, home school or out of state. They were able to clear 34 percent of those cases, compared to the state’s 19 percent clearance rate.