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Originally published Wednesday, May 29, 2013 at 4:02 PM

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Editorial: Seattle Public Schools’ wake-up call on federal grant audits

State audit of Seattle Public Schools underscores the need for better management of student programs and services.

Seattle Times Editorial

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WHEN it comes to its disappointing record with the state auditor’s office, the Seattle Public Schools is experiencing a version of the movie “Groundhog Day” — without the laughs and with missed opportunities for students.

For the fourth year in a row, the state’s largest school district has been dinged by state auditors for accounting and reporting errors in a program for Native American students.

The most serious problem was a lack of recognized tribal affiliation for some enrolled students and no documentation for others.

Additionally, managers failed to turn in forms on time or complete them. The district will repay $6,530 of a federal Indian Education grant.

State auditors then turned their attention to a $12.5 million dropout-prevention federal grant. They flagged $483,862 in district spending on activities not included in the original grant documents. If the feds believe the district is guilty of a bait-and-switch move with the grant funding, they may demand repayment.

These amounts are small in the context of the district’s half-billion dollar annual operating budget. But every dollar counts when the district is battling steep academic challenges faced by many of its students.

One in five Seattle public high-school students will not graduate on time or even with a fifth year of high school.

Native American students, the group intended to benefit from one of the grants, fare poorly on many academic indicators when compared with other racial groups — Asian/Pacific Islander, black, Hispanic and white.

How many wake-up calls does the district need? Strong internal controls are the only thing that will stop the replay of accounting mistakes and costly consequences.

The district must also better convince the public it takes its fiduciary responsibilities seriously. Duggan Harman, the district’s assistant superintendent of business and finance, acknowledged in a Times news story that repeated mistakes were the result of staffers “not doing the job they were hired to do.” but he declined to say what the district will do about it. That’s another critical omission.

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