The Bellflower Unified School District has clouded the true picture of its financial situation for years — and failed to provide students with proper resources during the pandemic despite the extra money, according to a report released by the California Auditor’s Office this week.
District officials said they disagreed with many of the report’s findings, but “will challenge themselves to do more.”
Since 2016, BUSD has spent less on providing services to its students than the amount its school board has approved in its annual budgets — and has deliberately provided misleading financial information to board members and the public, according to the report.
According to the report, district officials have also repeatedly provided the board of education and the public with incorrect financial information, preventing the board from conducting meaningful audits of district spending in recent years.
“Over the past six years, Bellflower could have used some of its available funding to meet the needs of students, the report states, “and to ensure that it consistently and adequately provided special education services to its students with disabilities.
BUSD Superintendent Tracy McSparren said in a Thursday, June 23 statement that the audit revealed “some areas” for improvement – which is usual.
“Despite this, the auditor’s review did not reveal any apparent conflict of interest by the Board of Directors or any unethical or unnecessary actions,” McSparren wrote in an email, “and has affirmed that the district had included educational partners in the development of the plans.”
A point-by-point response from the district to the audit, which the state released Thursday, is available in the report.
Bellflower’s unrestricted general fund money reached $83 million at the end of fiscal 2021, according to the report. This means that the district’s current reserve was 42% of its total expenditures, which is significantly higher than the minimum 3% reserve required by state law.
BUSD officials have also misrepresented its actual spending for several consecutive years, according to the report.
“Despite increasing its planned spending during the fiscal year, the district rarely spent the increased budgeted amounts,” the report said. “In fact, over the past six years, Bellflower has increased its budgeted spending by a total of $128 million, including $104 million that it never spent.”
Although BUSD’s graduation rate ranked about seven points above the state average for the 2018-2019 school year, according to the report, only 39% of Bellflower graduating students were prepared for the college or careers, which is below the statewide average of 44%. Bellflower students scored below the state average on standardized math exams.
“We question why Bellflower decided to increase its unrestricted general fund balance,” the audit said, “rather than investing in its students.”
Examples of investments the district could have made, according to the audit, include hiring additional math teachers or spending more on college-prep programs.
Chris Dawson, senior counsel for the state auditor’s office, said BUSD was unlikely to face any legal consequences or financial penalties for the concerns raised in the 81-page audit.
The report, however, offered solutions that BUSD could implement for greater transparency, including:
- Improve its budgeting and presentation processes.
- Adopt a general fund reserve policy that establishes a reasonable goal for the district.
- Review your special education program.
- Better comply with public records and open public meeting laws.
“While respectfully disagreeing with the State Auditor on a number of statements and findings,” McSparren said, “the District takes the opportunity to consider them in good faith, consistent with the District’s commitment to challenge itself to do more and do better, placing priority on the needs of its students and serving the community.
Students with disabilities, according to the report, have been particularly disappointed with BUSD’s lax policies.
Federal law requires states to implement policies to ensure that students with disabilities can be identified and offered individualized access to appropriate educational resources. In California, the responsibility for enforcing these federal guidelines rests with school districts.
Bellflower, however, did not have comprehensive processes in place to ensure federal compliance with special education guidelines, the report said.
The California Special Education Division of the Office of Administrative Hearings — which handles special education dispute resolution — issued 15 rulings against BUSD regarding the district’s implementation of special education requirements over the past five years, according to the report. That’s roughly the number of decisions made against surrounding school districts with much larger student populations.
The Long Beach Unified School District — home to six times as many students as BUSD — had 16 administrative hearing decisions over the same period. LAUSD, with 49 times more students than Bellflower, had 28 rulings against it.
“In fact, Bellflower accounted for 4% of all (Office of) Administrative Hearings decisions rendered since July 2016,” the report states, “even though the district represents only a fraction of a percentage of the 820,000 students with disabilities enrolled in in California public schools.
By not having proper special education processes in place, the report states, Bellflower has prevented students with disabilities from accessing an adequate education.
The district, however, said in its official response that BUSD represents only a fraction of cases filed in California.
“Bellflower USD works diligently to enforce all special education laws,” the district wrote, “and prepare our staff to provide the best possible service to our students.”
The pandemic — and Bellflower’s response to it — has exacerbated the various issues, according to the report. In addition to continuing to fail students with disabilities, BUSD has also failed to respond to general student crises during home learning in 2020 and 2021.
The district did not provide parents with any remote education updates through July 2020 — and only did so through a frequently asked questions page on its website. BUSD also waited until July to resolve student internet connectivity issues, according to the report.
BUSD, in its response, said the pandemic posed challenges for every school district, but officials were doing their best to be proactive — with administrators quickly communicating and sharing resources with stakeholders, and teachers connecting with students and their families.
“Through it all, as the background, clarifications and more information confirms,” the District wrote, “Bellflower USD has done an excellent job.”
But BUSD has also failed to accommodate its 1,800 English students and their families, according to the audit. Parents who were not fluent in English told the district in a survey that they found one of the school’s teaching platforms difficult to use, which made it difficult for them to help their children with homework. .
The lack of multilingual teaching materials, according to the report, could partly explain why only 83% of English learners at Bellflower took virtual lessons, compared to 87% of the district’s overall student average.
Bellflower was also aware of the barriers to remote learning faced by youth in foster care and homelessness as early as June 2020, according to the report. But officials failed to implement a plan to address student attendance and participation issues when school resumed in August of that year.
“Bellflower’s weak response to the challenges the pandemic presented was not the result of a lack of funding,” the audit said, noting that the district still has $50.5 million in state funding and federal unspent pandemic-related. “Despite the funding it has received, Bellflower has not demonstrated that it has taken an active leadership role in responding to educational disruption caused by the pandemic.”
The BUSD also defended its record in this area.
“While impacted by COVID-19 and a true pandemic, Bellflower USD continues to have a higher graduation rate than the state as a whole for English language learners, special education students, home students foster care and homeless students,” the district said. in his response. “He also addresses and seeks to constantly improve in all areas.”