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November 8, 2013

New Castle Schools: District responds to state audit findings

NEW CASTLE — The New Castle Area School District is answering state audit findings it received earlier this year.

One finding addresses three teachers who did not pay tuition for their out-of-district children who attended city schools.

At a special meeting Wednesday, the school board unanimously approved the district’s response to the findings, which was written by administrators.

The district received a letter from the Pennsylvania Department of Education, written Sept. 26, instructing it to review and respond to the state auditor general’s audit report that had been released publicly in May. That audit was for the years ending June 30, 2009, and June 30, 2010.

The district already had responded informally to two of the findings directly to the auditor general’s office, but not the tuition finding.

Those two findings concerned administration of the district’s umbrella fund and tracking the accounting of student activity funds.

The department of education’s letter specified that within 45 days, the district must submit a response and a corrective action plan with a time table for implementing it.

If the audit identifies a potential educator certification violation, the letter states, the district will be contacted by the department’s bureau of school leadership and teacher quality.

The finding regarding the tuition issue states that seven nonresident children of district employees were enrolled in the district as residents without documentation to demonstrate their eligibility for residency status. This cost the district $110,664 in state subsidy, which it now must repay.

The audit found the matter violated both the Pennsylvania Public School Code and the district’s own board policy.

In the document being sent to the state, the district concurred with the finding and listed these steps it took to correct the matter:

•Conducted a thorough investigation into the issue.

•Conducted due process hearings with the parents/employees who were involved and their attorneys.

•Is finalizing signed agreements with the parents/employees for them to make restitution. Superintendent John Sarandrea said after Wednesday’s meeting that those agreements are not finalized, but could be by next week.

•Took disciplinary action against the involved parents. Sarandrea would not say what those actions were, noting it is a personnel matter.

•Revamped the district’s enrollment of student policies, which the school board approved Aug. 14.

•Designated building-level principals as the only persons who can enroll students in their respective schools.

•Hired an attendance officer whose responsibilities include, but are not limited to, investigation of all residence issues reported to the district.

Last month, the board hired Richard Eagle Jr. of Harmony to investigate reported residency matters and truancy problems in all grades.

Sarandrea reported to the board Wednesday that Eagle’s $30,000-a-year position has already paid for itself. He explained Eagle had investigated a report of a Shenango Township youth enrolled in the New Castle district who, for more than a year, has been placed in St. Stephen’s Lutheran Academy in Harmony, an educational institution for students with emotional and behavioral issues.

The city district had been paying the student’s tuition there, according to Sarandrea, and the residency matter was reported to the district by a family member.

The tuition is $30,000 a year, “and we are owed more than $30,000,” Sarandrea said. “We’re entitled to that money back, so there’s (Eagle’s) salary in three weeks.”

“I can speak with confidence that we will not have a finding of this nature again,” he said of the nonresidency issues.

He pointed out that if someone has the courage to come forward and legitimately report such matters, the district will investigate to the fullest extent, “and if somebody wants to roll the dice now, they get what they get.”

“I feel that we’ve done our due diligence here, regarding putting things in place to investigate anything of that nature,” he added.

The three staff members who were subject of the audit finding — Jamie Lynn DeMase of Neshannock Township, a teacher at Harry W. Lockley Kindergarten Center; Dinia Kollar of Pulaski, a third-grade teacher at Thaddeus Stevens Primary Center; and Kelly Glies of Neshannock Township, a second-grade teacher at West Side Primary Center — are the parents of children who lived outside the district but attended New Castle schools without paying tuition within the four-year period examined by the state.

(Email: dwachter@ncnewsonline.com)

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