Recently, the Sun-Sentinel reported that the Broward County School District may have to return $23 million in federal Title 1 funds. The story said the district improperly distributed those funds, according to an auditor-general report.
Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie took issue with the report and had a letter published in the Sun-Sentinel challenging the story's claims.
You wrote this piece for the Sun-Sentinel challenging a report they had on a state audit of the district. What was your issue with their piece?
Well first of all the article that was published, I believe, it lacked sufficient context regarding a finding from a recent state audit, and as a consequence it has resulted in a missed representation of information to the public. What I would say to the Sun-Sentinel editorial board and management's credit is that they gave me an opportunity to write an Op-Ed to really set the facts straight on this, and so I was appreciative of that.
What are Title 1 funds?
Title 1 is a federally funded program. It was started, I believe, around 1965 for addressing the needs of economically disadvantaged children who reside within communities with high concentration of children from low-income families. The funds are used to provide supplemental instruction to raise the achievement of those students and some of the examples of services would include extra tutoring, after-school programs, extra teacher coaches and so on.
You had pointed out in your letter that some of the problems with the report had to do with the schools that were not originally reported for receiving Title 1 dollars. Can you elaborate?
Let me just say that first of all the assertion that the Broward County Public Schools would have to repay $23 million is absolutely incorrect. Broward County Public Schools will not have to repay $23 million in federal funds used to support student learning at Title 1 schools. Again that comes from the auditor-general's office. There's been no assertion that there were ever any inappropriate expenditures in this case of the allocation of those funds. All of these funds were spent in compliance with the guidelines for Title 1. What we do in a district to determine the distribution of those funds is that we rank the schools based on the percentage of students who qualify for free and reduced meals in each school, and in a matter that was noted in the finding, the school rankings changed after the district submitted the original application. So the remedy for that situation is not to pay back the money. The remedy is to re-distribute a small percentage of those funds, maybe about 1 percent, to insure that the schools with the higher needs received the correct amount of funding. But that's where we are with it and it's it's really a stretch to suggest that the district would have to pay back $23 million.
You also brought up in your letter the issue of safety. And in that auditor report there were some issues with some of the campuses. What were some of the problems?
The vast majority of the deficiencies and issues that were noted in the auditor-general's report include things such as cleaning out the areas that had debris there. We're removing extension cords, replacing ceiling tiles when necessary. We've got 36 million square feet of space and I say look: You're always going to find a ceiling tile that we probably need to make some adjustments with. And another example we were cited for was not providing cover for the walkways to portables and modular classrooms. But those portable and modular classrooms are not in use. And they're actually slated for demolition and we're not going to spend taxpayer dollars on facilities and energies that will be demolished. So the challenge with the reporting around this is that these are fairly complex issues and you really have to sit down and dive into the details of what it means before you actually draw some conclusions.
You talked about the reporting on health insurance claims. One of the things in the reporting had to deal with health insurance claims related to individuals who had separated from the district. The district is self-insured. Please help us understand how that works.
When you're self-insured as an organization you essentially don't pay premiums, so if there's a party provider, you manage their whole and entire portfolio of insurance yourself. You pay the claims. You may hire a third party administrator, but you don't pay premiums for employees. You actually cover all those costs yourself. The costs are very significant for a district of this size. We're probably somewhere close to 180 million or so. So we're large enough, as the largest employer in Broward County with over 30,000 employees. Twenty five thousand of those are benefit-eligible employees. It makes sense for us to be self-insured. We've been able to reduce costs as a result of being self-insured. In fact over the past three years the district has saved over $30 million under our self-insured model versus what we were before. I noted in the article we don't pay health insurance premiums. There were no health insurance claims related to individuals who separated from the district. The issue noted by the auditor-general involved how 34 individuals were coded in a separate area of the district's employer/employee system. But that did not impact benefits and how we manage those.
Where is the district in terms of its progress and where do you want to take it within the next six to 12 months?
There's always going to be problems and challenges an organization of this size and it's the responsibility of management to own it and fix them as soon as possible, but we've got to fix things based on the facts. I would tell you that the district is in a culture of continuous improvement whether it's our schools or are administrative functions. We're working to get better and better every day. I believe that our students deserve that and our communities expect it. We have continued to move in the right direction in delivering on our core mission, which is to deliver a high quality education experience to our students. This past year we have reached our highest graduation rate in five years. We have become a national leader in rethinking student discipline and reducing student arrests by 65 percent over the last three or four years, reducing school behavior incidents like 30 percent. We continue to provide innovative programs and focus on our schools that are struggling to make sure that we have the right leadership and culture in all schools to move forward. And that's our focus. We're going to continue doing that, and we're going to get better each and every day.