TEA hears Lancaster’s 4-day school plan, considers audit; District’s finances raise concerns in waiver push

By Joshua Benton and Terrence Stutz
Staff Writers

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AUSTIN – The dispute over Lancaster ISD’s proposed four-day school week reached Austin on Thursday as supporters and critics aired their views to the state education commissioner.

Meanwhile, the Texas Education Agency is considering whether to send a team of auditors to the school district to check on worrisome financial data.

“It does appear that there is a significant, or has been a significant budget discrepancy,” acting Commissioner Robert Scott said after Thursday’s meeting, which was closed to the news media.

Mr. Scott will make the final decision on whether Lancaster will be granted a state waiver that would allow the 6,000-student district to offer fewer than the standard 180 school days.

After the 90-minute presentation Thursday, Lancaster schools Superintendent Larry Lewis said he felt it had gone “great.”

“I think they saw the benefits for kids, that it wasn’t just about cost savings and that there are some strong instructional reasons for doing this,” he said. “We are real excited about it and look forward to hearing from him. Regardless of what they do, they heard us today, and our kids got the benefit of the hearing.”

Mr. Scott said he would spend time over the next few days evaluating the proposal and getting more information from supporters and opponents. He said he hoped to have an answer next week, though he said he wasn’t making any promises.

Delivering the opposing viewpoint was Lancaster school board member Carolyn Morris, who told the commissioner that the proposal was ill-conceived and formulated with little participation from parents and taxpayers.

She was the only board member to vote no on the plan last week. She also presented Mr. Scott with a letter signed by several parents outlining their opposition. Had there been better notice of the meeting, she said, more parents would have made the trip to Austin.

“I was pleased the commissioner wanted to hear both sides,” she said. “I stressed to him that the community had a strong voice on this issue and wanted me to bring that voice to Austin.”

Although parents were never surveyed about the idea, Dr. Lewis said he believes they would overwhelmingly support the idea if it is implemented.

Ms. Morris responded: “They should have done a survey of parents. If they did, they would find a majority opposed to this.”

Mr. Scott said the agency still had a number of questions about the workability of Lancaster’s proposal. He said he wants to know more about how the rights of special education students would be affected, and how the district had made key decisions about its proposed Friday day care program.

Perhaps the most complex problem would be the necessary changes to the state’s school finance system. Texas public schools are funded based on the number of days their students attend school. A four-day week would normally mean a roughly 20 percent cut in funding. So approving Lancaster’s proposal would mean creating a separate funding formula just for the district.

“I don’t know that we’re equipped to do that right now,” Mr. Scott said. “That’s a big question for us – is this possible given our current capacity? … This decision has policy implications for the entire state.”

District officials acknowledged they had come up with the plan only two weeks ago, Mr. Scott said, adding that there were issues “I don’t think they had completely thought through.”

He said he had concerns about the impact the switch would have on parents so close to the start of school.

“I told them that I had to look at it that way,” he said. “I asked them if they would consider doing a pilot before implementing it across the district. They said they had thought about it but ruled it out.”

On the financial question, Mr. Scott said he had not examined Lancaster’s financial records thoroughly, adding that a key audit staffer at the agency was not at work this week. But he said the agency will determine soon whether a state audit team would need to visit the district.

Lancaster failed the most recent state financial accountability ratings, in part because of its very low fund balances. It has had to take out bridge loans to pay its bills in at least three of the past four years, and it was months late producing its annual audit this year because of unanswered questions about district accounts.

Board documents from earlier this month showed a nearly $9 million shortfall between available revenues and expenditures for the upcoming year. Dr. Lewis has said any financial problems are being exaggerated and refused to answer questions about them. Mr. Scott said Dr. Lewis characterized the problems as “rumors.”

Dr. Lewis insisted Thursday that the proposal was based primarily on academic rather than financial concerns. He said he wants students to have longer uninterrupted stretches of class time, particularly in science.

“It just gives us so many more academic opportunities that we’ve never had before in Lancaster,” he said.

According to Mr. Scott, Dr. Lewis estimated the cost savings at $700,000, not the $1.9 million he told board members last week.

Asked what he would do if the commissioner turns down the request, Dr. Lewis said he would try again next year.

“There is no question that if we don’t get it this year, we will come back next year, because we see the benefits of this,” he said.