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Audit Outlines Shortcomings of State Department of Education

A new audit from the state's auditor general gives the Pennsylvania Department of Education poor marks for how it deals with academically struggling schools and special employees.

The report, covering mid-2010 to mid-2015, finds that the agency failed to provide special help to most poor-performing schools unless it was expressly required by federal law.

The new scores were adopted in 2012 to assess and compare schools. Auditor General Eugene DePasquale said during a press conference Tuesday that merely labeling sub-par schools is of little service.

“If you’re going to come up with criteria for what is poor-performing... you’ve got to be prepared to do something to deal with it,” said DePasquale.  “There has to be an action, or why else have a Department of Education?”

The agency told auditors that it does not provide extra help to schools unless it’s required under federal guidelines, such as for schools with a high percentage of low-income families. But, even some of those schools have gone without special help from the department, according to the audit.

The audit recommends that the agency put one person or office in charge of responding to struggling schools. It advises the Department of Education to become more of a “doer,” relying less on contractors and intermediate units to meet low-rated schools’ needs.

The report also faults the state Board of Education for failing to update the state’s “master plan” for K-through-12 education since 1999. State law requires the plan to be revisited every five years.

In a written response to the audit, the Board of Education said its responsibilities have expanded since the last update to the statewide plan for education, and a thorough revision would be a huge undertaking. Board Chairman Larry Wittig, appointed by former Governor Tom Corbett, suggested the audit was based more on opinion than fact. The audit’s timeframe falls almost entirely during the years of the Corbett administration.

Governor Tom Wolf’s Department of Education responded that it agrees with many of the recommendations of the audit, but has had limited resources during the years covered by the report. Secretary Pedro Rivera said the agency has no dedicated funding to respond to struggling schools.

DePasquale expanded the audit’s scope last year to include special and short-term hires. It was means of looking into an item that had been in the news: reports that Corbett’s former education secretary, Ron Tomalis, was doing little work in his new role as special adviser on higher education.

The audit confirms that there were few electronic records of “work product” by Tomalis, but it also finds that the agency failed to closely monitor dozens of other short-term hires and special assistants.

The department responded that it is considering adopting new policies for keeping abreast of the activities of such employees.