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Utah auditors: Weber district students trail peers, proficiency merits more focus

By Tim Vandenack - | Apr 22, 2022

BEN DORGER, Standard-Examiner file photo

The Weber School District headquarters building in Washington Terrace is pictured on Friday, Sept. 28, 2018.

SALT LAKE CITY — A state audit of Weber School District operations found the system’s strategic plan should be updated to better focus on district priorities, with a particular focus on bolstering student proficiency.

Updating the 10-year-old strategic plan “will increase accountability and help the district better target student performance,” reads the 84-page report, released Tuesday. The strategic plan outlines broad goals for the district related to student achievement, staff recruitment and training, and use of technology, among other things.

Notably, the audit by the Utah Legislative Auditor General found the proficiency of the district’s students lags that of other comparable districts, an area that could be more clearly targeted in the strategic plan. Senate Bill 160, passed in 2021, authorizes audits of school districts for the first time and Weber School District was the first system to face such scrutiny.

The audit — which drew a sharp rebuke from Weber School District — said the system performed worse in math and English in 2019 than other districts with similar concentrations of students who are economically disadvantaged, a factor that correlates to student proficiency. Of 38 districts analyzed in all, Weber School District had the eighth-lowest level of English and math proficiency.

Given the varied characteristics of the district, the report went on, the auditors’ modeling indicated the district should have performed nearly 7 percentage points higher than its actual score, “more in line with similar districts,” the report reads.

The investigators, who reviewed Weber School Board meeting minutes, pointed their fingers at school officials.

“The WSD board does not appear to be addressing lower-than-expected proficiency rates. Student proficiency goals are not discussed at board meetings, neither is it a primary consideration when evaluating the district superintendent on a biannual basis,” the report reads.

On the bright side, the reported noted an earlier district initiative to bolster graduation rates among Roy High School students, the Roy Cone Project. The graduation rate at the school went from 74% in 2013 to 93% in 2018, more on par with Bonneville, Fremont and Weber high schools.

“We believe the Roy Cone Project provides a template for WSD to improve its district-level strategic plan,” reads the audit.

According to the auditors, boosting school funding, perhaps via a property tax hike, could help.

As is, the district “spends significantly less per pupil than peer districts with similar enrollment numbers, which is partially due to its relatively low revenues from the district’s tax base.” Classroom and non-classroom spending in the district in the 2021 school year totaled $10,510 per student, below the state average of $12,295 and a $12,254 average among peer group districts.

Noting the $500,000 spent on the Roy Cone Project and the success of that initiative, “we believe that a modest tax rate increase could be a means to fund necessary positions and programs,” says the audit.

The Weber School District offered a sharp response to the audit, included in the report, saying it was “deeply disappointed” by the performance of the auditors. The auditors, according to the response, “spent minimal time” with district directors to learn of their programs and services.

“Following their initial meeting with the auditors in the summer of 2021, months passed without any follow-up questions to learn more about the programs they oversaw. Directors reported that the auditors didn’t seem to understand enough about their departments to even know what questions to ask,” reads the district response. District officials thought more meetings would take place, but they didn’t.

Furthermore, the district response questioned the methodology auditors used in determining student proficiency, saying they used only one variable in evaluating Weber School District in relation to other school systems. “Statistically, that’s problematic and consequently leads to inaccurate results and conclusions,” the district statement said.

The statement went on, noting that student improvement, or growth, is also an important measuring stick. That sort of measure was not included in the audit.

“While Weber School District does have work to do with respect to proficiency rates, we are proud of the median growth percentiles which represent the measurable growth of our students over the course of each year. The median growth percentiles for Weber School District clearly illustrate the movement of our students toward proficiency,” the district said.

What’s more, the district compared actual student performance for 2021 to expected performance without the impact of the pandemic. District officials found that several categories of students performed at or above those expectations.

“The overwhelming majority of students who were identified as low income scored at or above modeled values in mathematics, as did students of color,” reads the district response. “This level of performance wouldn’t have been possible without intentional district-wide attention to student data and a strong focus on multi-tiered systems of support.”

The district also took issue with the criticism directed at the school board.

School officials, parents and others use district data “to create plans that address not only proficiency scores, but also the many other factors that lead to educating the whole student,” the district report said. “The Weber Board of Education carefully reviews each school plan before approving them on an annual basis.”

As for funding, the district noted $2.5 million in funding each year for instructional coaches and other specialists to bolster student proficiency. Another $4 million or so a year in state Trust Lands funding and most of the $4.8 million or so per year the district gets in Teacher Student Success Act funds is also used to bolster proficiency.

“Should this process be repeated in another school district, we strongly recommend significant review of the auditing process, as well as the overall performance of the individuals involved in the audit,” the district said.

The audit, which cost $148,942, also looked at management of grant funds and spending.

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