What is going on at the Connecticut Department of Education?

A newly released report from state auditors begs the question: What is going on at the Connecticut State Department of Education?

The long and alarming critique of the agency showed officials bypassing the lottery system to admit particular Hartford students to magnet schools, magnet school officials denying state officials access to their schools, failure to put contracts up for competitive bidding, and “extremely unsanitary restrooms” at some of the technical high schools run by the SDE.

Those were just a few of the statute violations, inconsistencies and citations of mismanagement included in the report released by the state auditor’s office on Thursday. Overall, it paints the picture of a state agency that appears all too complacent in its regard for laws, best practices and use of taxpayer dollars.

Particularly egregious was the discovery that over 100 students – particularly athletes and academic high achievers – were being admitted to Hartford’s most prestigious magnet school without going through the lottery process.

The lottery system for enrollment in magnet schools is supposed to ensure that all students have a fair chance of getting into the school of their choice.

Of the students admitted to Capital Prep magnet school in 2014-2015, 28 percent were admitted outside the lottery process, according to the audit. During the 2015-2016 school year, that figure increased to 44 percent amounting to 116 students over two years.

The Hartford Courant reported earlier in the week that the school was purposefully admitting athletes to boost its sports program.

The auditors indicated that bypassing the lottery is a violation of the Sheff v. O’Neil court ruling and “increases the risk for fraud regarding the enrollment of exceptional athletes, who improve the image of the school” and high achieving students who “disproportionately improve the school’s average test scores.”

The SDE has also neglected monitoring its magnet schools, performing only 14 site inspections between 2009 and 2012 to determine whether or not the magnet school program is meeting the state’s goals. At that rate, it would take 37 years to inspect all the magnet schools in Connecticut.

Furthermore, some magnet school officials denied the SDE access to their schools, claiming they were not required by law to be inspected or reviewed.

The magnet school system appeared ripe with problems. The report indicates that the SDE has no policies or procedures to ensure magnet schools meet their statutory requirements, even as they collect $283 million in state funds outside the costs of construction and transportation.

The commissioner of the SDE also failed to submit inter-district magnet school plans to the state legislature between the years of 2011 and 2014, extending a statewide moratorium on new magnet schools.

Currently, under state law, no new magnet schools can be considered until the SDE has a comprehensive plan to be sure that magnet schools meet the goals set forth in the 2008 Sheff v. O’Neil ruling. That report was finally submitted this past December.

But issues at the education department extend past the magnet schools, according to the report. The auditors found that the agency was not putting contracts out for competitive bidding, including a $6 million contract for a “new talent development program.”

The SDE was also cited for lax security and some “extremely unsanitary” conditions at the technical high schools it oversees.

Even though the custodial departments were fully staffed according the SDE, the state auditors found the conditions at two technical high schools “dirty and suffering from an obvious lack of maintenance.”

The SDE claims that they are looking to fill vacant maintenance and custodial positions at those high schools and may hire additional staff.

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