San Perlita Independent School District
In October 2001, Texas Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn announced her intent to conduct a review of the San Perlita Independent School District (SPISD) as part of a countywide review of four districts in Willacy County, including Raymondville, Lyford and Lasara ISDs. Work began in San Perlita in October 2001. In April 2002, the Comptroller issued a final report detailing 42 recommendations that could result in net savings of $251,143 by 2006-07 if fully implemented. During June 2003, the Texas School Performance Review (TSPR) staff returned to assess the district's progress in implementing the recommendations.
Since 1991, TSPR has recommended more than 7,600 ways to save taxpayers more than $780 million over a five-year period in 100 public school districts throughout Texas. TSPR also conducts follow-up reviews of districts that have had at least one year to implement its recommendations. These more than 60 subsequent reviews showed that school districts have acted on more than 90 percent of TSPR's proposals, saving taxpayers nearly $135 million, with the full savings estimated to grow in the future.
Comptroller Strayhorn, who took office in January 1999, consulted school district officials, parents and teachers from across Texas and carefully examined past reviews and progress reports to make TSPR more valuable, even vital, to the state's more than 1,000 school districts. With the perspective of having served as a teacher, and later a school board president, the Comptroller has vowed to steer TSPR toward greater accountability to local school districts and the communities they represent.
Comptroller Strayhorn began by establishing new criteria for selecting school districts for future reviews. Priority is given to districts judged poor performing-academically or financially-and to hands-on reviews that will benefit the greatest number of students.
Recognizing that only about 51 cents of every education dollar is spent on instruction, Comptroller Strayhorn's goal is to drive more of every education dollar directly into the classroom. In addition, no longer are school districts' best practices and exemplary models buried inside individual TSPR reports. Instead, Comptroller Strayhorn has ordered best practices and exemplary programs to be shared quickly and systematically among all the state's school districts and with anyone who requests such information. There is simply no reason for a district that has solved a problem well to keep the solution to itself. Comptroller Strayhorn has directed TSPR to serve as an active clearinghouse of the best and brightest ideas in Texas public education. Best practices identified in the original review are now included in the Comptroller's best practices database, A+ Ideas for Managing Schools (AIMS), which is accessible on the Web at www.aimsdatabase.org.
Under Comptroller Strayhorn's approach, the TSPR team and consultants work with districts to:
- ensure students and teachers receive the support and resources necessary to succeed;
- identify innovative options to address core management challenges;
- ensure administrative activities are performed efficiently, without duplication and in a manner that spurs education;
- develop strategies to ensure the districts' processes and programs are continuously assessed and improved;
- understand the links among the districts' functional areas and determine ways to provide a seamless system of services;
- challenge any process, procedure, program or policy that impedes instruction and recommend ways to reduce or eliminate obstacles; and
- put goods and services to the "Yellow Pages test"-government should do no job if there is a business in the Yellow Pages that can do that job better and at a lower cost.
Finally, Comptroller Strayhorn has opened her door to Texans who share her optimism about TSPR's potential. Suggestions to improve school reviews are welcome at any time. The Comptroller is a staunch believer in public education and public accountability.
Detailed information can be obtained from TSPR by calling 1-800-531-5441 extension 5-3676, or by visiting the Comptroller's Web site at www.window.state.tx.us.
The Comptroller contracted with Trace Consulting Services Inc, a San Antonio-based firm, to assist with the review. The review team interviewed district employees, school board members, parents and community members and held a public forum on October 29, 2001 at the San Perlita School cafeteria from 6 to 8 p.m.
To ensure stakeholders had an opportunity to give comment, the review team sent surveys to parents, teachers and district staff. The team received 99 responses from 15 school and central administrators and support staff, 14 teachers, 41 parents and 29 students.
The review team also consulted two Texas Education Agency (TEA) databases of comparative educational information, the Academic Excellence Indicator System (AEIS) and the Public Education Information Management System (PEIMS).
SPISD selected three peer districts for comparisons based on similarities in student enrollment, student performance and community and student demographics. The districts chosen were Benadives, Lasara and Monte Alto. The district also was compared to the state and district averages in TEA's Regional Education Service Center I (Region 1), to which the district belongs.
Located in South Texas, SPISD lies about 35 miles northeast of Harlingen and nine miles from Raymondville, the county seat. SPISD, one of four school districts in Willacy County, covers 314 square miles. The district serves San Perlita and Port Mansfield, which is 16 miles from San Perlita. The district's three schools arelocated on the south end of San Perlita on 16.5 contiguous acres.
In 2002-03, SPISD served 258 students. The student body was 81 percent Hispanic and 19 percent Anglo, with 84.1 percent of students classified as economically disadvantaged. The elementary school includes pre-kindergarten through grade 6, while the middle school includes grades 7 and 8. The high school serves grades 9 through 12. The three schools share a library and cafeteria. The district's administrative offices are adjacent to the schools.
In 2001-02, 92.2 percent of SPISD students passed the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS); 96.1 percent passed the math portion of the test; 93.9 percent passed the reading portion; and 97.7 passed the writing portion. In 2002-03, 78 percent of the SPISD grade 11 students met the reading standard of the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS); 100 percent met the mathematics standard; 100 percent met the social studies standard; 80 percent met the science standard; and 70 percent met the standard for all tests taken. TEA rated SPISD as Academically Acceptable in 2000-01 and Exemplary in 2001-02.
In 2002-03, the district employed a staff of 53 individuals, of which teachers made up 44.3 percent. The district budgeted nearly $2.8 million in 2002-03 and spent 46 cents of every tax dollar on classroom instruction, compared to the state average of 51 cents.
Over the last year, the district experienced significant changes. In June 2001, the district appointed an interim superintendent, who was hired as superintendent in November 2002. Under the new superintendent's leadership, the district improved its TEA district rating from Academically Acceptable to Exemplary.
Noting the presence of asbestos in the building containing the district library and cafeteria, the superintendent recognized the need to upgrade the facility. He applied for and received a $1.6 million Instructional Facilities Allotment for the new building. The district demolished the building. The new facility should be completed by December 2003.
While work continues in the district, both SPISD staff and TSPR team members have a sense of steady progress.The district has implemented 29 recommendations; has 10 in various stages of progress; and has reviewed three not yet implemented. (See Appendix A for details on the recommendations' status.)
San Perlita ISD Report Card
Excellent = More than 80% complete
Chapter Total Complete In Progress Not Implemented Rejected Percent Complete/In Progress Grades District Organization and Management 9 6 3 0 0 67%/33% Satisfactory Educational Service Delivery 11 9 2 0 0 82%/18% Excellent Financial Management 8 6 2 0 0 75%/25% Satisfactory Operations 14 8 3 3 0 57%/21% Needs Work Overall Grade 42 29 10 3 0 69%/24% Satisfactory
Satisfactory = 80% to 100% complete or in progress
Needs Work = Less than 80% complete or in progress
TSPR identified numerous "best practices" in SPISD. Through commendations in each chapter, the report highlights model programs, operations and services provided by SPISD administrators, teachers and staff. The Comptroller encourages other school districts throughout Texas to examine these exemplary programs and services to determine if they could be adapted to meet local needs. TSPR's commendations include the following:
- School board members have pursued training beyond state and district minimum requirements. The Texas Education Code, Section 11.159, mandates the State Board of Education (SBOE) to set rules requiring each board member to attend at least 16 hours of continuing education in a board member's first year of service and eight hours each year thereafter. SPISD board members, however, received an average of 21.8 hours of extensive continuing education from April 2000 to April 2001, by attending seminars and additional training.
According to board reports, since the review SPISD board members have continued to attend seminars and receive additional training beyond state-mandated and district requirements.
- SPISD has taken advantage of a federally funded initiative to encourage and prepare students for college. San Perlita participates in GEARUP (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs), a federally funded initiative designed to increase the numbers of low-income students prepared for post-secondary education. The GEARUP grant allows the district to employ one facilitator who coordinates services for 24 middle school students, including mentoring, tutoring, academic counseling and outreach to families.
The GEARUP program is in the fourth year of a five-year program. The program has continued with the same group of 24 students, who are ninth graders in 2003-04.
- SPISD provides families of high school students with a computer and Internet access at home and its high school teachers with laptop computers. SPISD received a grant for $138,000 under the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Distance Learning and Telemedicine Loan and Grant Program. Cooperation between the district, the federal government and the Valley Telephone Cooperative Inc., provided 57 computers and Internet access for the families of SPISD's high school students. The district also used the grantto purchase laptop computers for every high school teacher.
Because students in this small community do not have access to a school or library after school, SPISD continues to provide every family with a high school student, a personal computer and Internet access at home. The superintendent said that computers give the students an opportunity to enhance their education by providing research tools and a network for direct communication with teachers. The laptops allow teachers to communicate with students and work on assignments, projects and record grades from school or home. Even though the grant is finished, the district continues to fund this program.
- SPISD provides outstanding health services to students. SPISD's nurse maintains a medical card for every student. The nurse notes the reason for visits on these medical cards, thus tracking medical issues for all students and detecting patterns requiring additional attention. In the event of a major medical emergency or a school security lockdown, the nurse can quickly access important medical information including blood type, known allergies to medications and other important information, and can quickly assist emergency medical personnel. The nurse also makes home visits to students who have been absent for two consecutive days to help reduce the number of absences.
The district continues to maintain a medical card for every student and staff member. The superintendent said that the nurse also provides annual vision, hearing and spinal screenings, which benefit students and staff and help make parents aware of any potential health problems.
- SPISD used state and federal grants to meet TEA recommendations for student-to-computer ratios. The district has received nearly $274,000 in technology grants and has been able to provide students and teachers with an ample supply of computers. SPISD exceeds the state's mid-term goal of three to one with a ratio of two students per computer in the district.
Despite the elimination of the Telecommunications Infrastructure Fund grants, SPISD has continued to exceed the state's goal of three students to one computer with a ratio of two students per district computer.
The following are some of the key recommendations that the superintendent said had the greatest impact on district operations. The highlighted recommendations are organized by chapter and by the area of operation as contained in the original report. The comments came from the superintendent during the TSPR team's follow-up visit to the district.
Educational Service Delivery
Recommendation 13: Use the distance learning lab to offer advanced courses. The superintendent said that using the distance learning lab for college-level courses provides students with a unique opportunity. Students obtain a feel for college, learn what is required and realize how college expectations differ from those in high school. Maximizing the use of the lab has been an efficient and effective way to allow students to earn credit.
Recommendation 17: Explore disciplinary alternative education program options. SPISD decided to rent space at city hall for $50 per month for the district's Disciplinary Alternative Education Program (DAEP). The separate DAEP space has been successful because it isolates DAEP students from the general student population. DAEP students integrate well back into the general population upon returning to the district.
Recommendation 21: Develop internal control procedures for the business office and transfer business management duties to the accountant. The SPISD superintendent developed internal control procedures for the business office and transferred all of his accounting duties to a degreed accountant hired in 2001-02. The superintendent said that adjustment allowed him to focus on the district and curriculum issues.
Recommendation 24: Develop an implementation strategy for GASB Statement No. 34. With the assistance of the external auditors, SPISD developed an implementation plan to comply with GASB Statement No. 34. The librarian will perform the bar coding, scanning and input for the fixed-asset management system. This helped the district to comply with GASB 34 and provide assurance to taxpayers that the district tracks all assets.
Recommendation 25: Develop a Request For Proposal for auditing services and require the external auditing firm to include a management letter and schedule of findings with audited financial statements. The superintendent received board approval for the RFP, including a management letter and schedule of findings, which was submitted at the end of June 2003.
Recommendation 31: Maintain detailed records for all work performed by the Maintenance Department to facilitate the district's planning and budgeting. SPISD currently maintains detailed records for all work performed by the Maintenance Department. This recommendation helps provide the Maintenance Department with a good working knowledge of department expenditures.
Recommendation 37: Report eligible special education program mileage to increase state reimbursements. According to the superintendent, reporting eligible special education program mileage has increased revenues by $7,591 for 2002-03.
SPISD has made steady progress in implementing TSPR recommendations. The district has implemented 29 recommendations and has 10 in various stages of progress, but has not yet implemented three recommendations. This section addresses the key areas requiring additional attention.
Staffing Allocation Formula
The district has not fully implemented Recommendation 6, concerning the use of staffing allocation formulas as a baseline for assigning staff. A staffing allocation formula, typically based on student enrollment, provides a school district with a guide for determining the number and type of staff positions needed. The superintendent said the district is working on a staffing allocation formula but finds it difficult because of the district's small size, a drop in student enrollment and a decrease in state funding. Considering these factors, a defined formula for the number and type of staff needed becomes even more critical since personnel costs typically are the largest district expenditure. By implementing a staffing allocation formula for all staffing categories, the district can ensure appropriate staffing for the number of students enrolled.
TSPR recommended that the district establish a general fund balance management policy and require the superintendent to report to the board on the status of the fund balance at every meeting (Recommendation 22). Although the district has begun updating, streamlining and reformatting all reports for the board, it has not established a fund balance management policy. By following the TEA formula for estimating an optimum school district general fund balance, the superintendent can establish goals for and a means of attaining and maintaining the desired fund balance level. By establishing a general fund balance management policy and requiring the superintendent to reports its status at every meeting, the board ensures that it and district administration are always completely aware of the district's financial position.
Although the district obtained funds to demolish the library and cafeteria building and construct a new facility, it still has not created a comprehensive facilities master plan (Recommendation 29). TSPR encourages the district to develop a long-range master plan to document facilities needs, including maintenance and new construction. The plan should identify each major repair or renovation needed and identify and prioritize district goals.
The Texas School Performance Review team does not assume that its process for performing school reviews works so well that it cannot be improved. Therefore, as part of the progress report preparation, TSPR asked SPISD staff members, administrators and board members to discuss what went right and what went wrong-and then talk about how the process could be improved.
The feedback TSPR has received from other districts led to improvements in the review process. For example, early reports did not include implementation strategies, and districts told TSPR they needed help in getting started. As a result, the reports now include Implementation Strategies and Timelines to complement the recommendations. Districts have told TSPR these blueprints are invaluable to achieving the desired results. It is important for TSPR to continually be mindful of things that did not work as intended so that the review process can be improved.
The SPISD superintendent said that the review generated good ideas and improvements to help move the district forward. However, he said the timing of the review in October 2001 was not ideal. Because of the small size of the district, the superintendent has many different responsibilities. The superintendent said that given the district's size, he felt that the review team spent too much time in the district. Since this review, TSPR has begun using a pooled contract for smaller district reviews. This allows TSPR to quickly contract for consulting services, speeds on-site work and allows TSPR to complete small district reviews on a significantly reduced timeline.
The superintendent also expressed concern about publishing survey comments, which he said should be provided as an internal report to the superintendent. TSPR understands this concern, but survey results are intended to help the district's board and administration understand the areas of most concern to citizens, teachers and students.