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Errors to cost schools money

The state has asked Hillsborough County schools to repay about $615,000 for inaccurately reporting the number of non-certified teachers and students in special programs.

The findings by the Auditor General come about a month after the state decided to withhold about $1.2-million in federal dollars from the district because of counting errors in school cafeterias.

The repayment amount in the audit will be subtracted from this year's district budget of $1.89-billion, said Mike Bookman, assistant superintendent for business. He described it as a hit during tough financial times.

"Any amount of money hurts," he said. "You never want to be minus $600,000."

The audit, which is done at all school districts every three years, is important because it is directly tied to the student-based formula the state uses to determine funding. The state funds about 51 percent of district budgets.

"Unlike most audits or examinations . . . ours have a direct impact on the financial condition of the district," said Joe Williams, section audit supervisor with Auditor General's office.

The audit recommends the district "exercise more care" and take steps to prevent improperly reporting the number of students in programs such as dropout prevention, to ensure teachers get proper certification and to notify parents when their children are being taught by teachers without proper credentials.

The audit's 159 findings showed two main types of errors: those involving teachers and their qualifications and those regarding students in special programs such as dropout prevention, exceptional education and English for students who speak other languages.

The district failed to notify parents in dozens of cases about teachers who were not certified in the subject areas they were teaching, which is required by state law.

About 5 percent of Hillsborough's 12,000 teachers are considered out-of-field. Those teachers must take six semester hours of the subject area in which they are teaching.

Janice Velez, director of human resources, said some principals were not aware they needed to notify parents each semester that teachers of children who struggle with English did not have proper certification.

"Our principals thought they were in compliance," she said.

Shari Francis, vice president of state relations with the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education based in Washington, D.C., said many parents would be shocked to learn how many of their children's teachers are not qualified to teach the subjects they're teaching.

"It's a major problem," she said. "It's a dirty little secret most parents don't know. Even if a person is a scientist, doesn't mean that person can teach elementary science."

Williams called the report's findings serious, but said Hillsborough is "not significantly worse or better off than districts of similar size." Overall, the state found the district to be in compliance with state law.

Bookman said the district has appealed some of the state's findings and hopes the repayment amount will drop somewhat.

The $615,000 represents far less than 1 percent of the $427-million the district gets from the state.

Bookman noted the school system has improved since the last audit in 1997, in which the district had to repay $1.1-million. After that audit, the district set up a special section of three internal auditors whose main job was to monitor student numbers that are reported to the state to lessen errors.

This year, the district has requested another full-time auditor.

"It's never pleasant to repay any amount of money or have an amount deducted," Bookman said. "But this shows the effort we're putting in is paying off."

_ Melanie Ave covers education and can be reached at (813) 226-3400.

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