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California State Auditor Report Number : 2016-109

Uniform Complaint Procedures
The California Department of Education’s Inadequate Oversight Has Led to a Lack of Uniformity and Compliance in the Processing of Complaints and Appeals



Summary

California established the Uniform Complaint Procedures (UCP) in September 1991 to provide a uniform process for investigating complaints that allege that schools or school districts have violated federal or state laws and regulations related to certain educational programs or issues. Under the UCP, local educational agencies (LEAs)—which are primarily school districts and county offices of education—are responsible for investigating most complaints, while the California Department of Education (Education) is responsible for processing any appeals of LEA investigation results. In addition, to comply with federal requirements, Education directly investigates complaints related to two programs—Special Education and Nutrition Services—and in certain instances, it may intervene to investigate other complaints as well. For this audit, we reviewed the processes that Education and three selected LEAs used to administer the UCP for fiscal years 2013–14 through 2015–16. This report draws the following conclusions:


Education has not provided the oversight necessary to ensure its divisions comply with UCP requirements.

Education has not designated a central office to be responsible for its intake of UCP complaints and appeals. Instead, 14 different offices and divisions (divisions) receive and process complaints and appeals, resulting in delays in forwarding some complaints and appeals to the correct divisions responsible for acting on them. In addition, Education has not established standard policies and procedures for its divisions to follow when investigating complaints and reviewing appeals.


LEAs have not ensured that their processes for addressing UCP complaints are efficient and meet all state requirements.

During fiscal years 2013–14 through 2015–16, both Los Angeles Unified School District (Los Angeles Unified) and San Juan Unified School District (San Juan Unified) received many complaints through their UCP processes that did not fall within the purview of state UCP regulations, indicating a need for a mechanism that allows individuals to discuss with the LEAs whether their complaints are subject to the UCP before they file them. Additionally, all three of the LEAs we reviewed—Los Angeles Unified, San Juan Unified, and San Diego Unified School District (San Diego Unified)—had instances when they did not meet certain UCP requirements, including the requirement that they complete investigations within 60 days of receiving complaints. Further, the LEAs did not always secure agreements from complainants before extending investigations as required by UCP regulations. Los Angeles Unified staff told us that complainants often do not respond when the LEA requests an extension. However, the UCP regulations do not allow an LEA to extend the investigation timeline without first obtaining a written extension agreement from complainants.


Oversight of charter schools’ compliance with the UCP can be improved.

Two of the LEAs we reviewed did not identify instances in which four charter schools—two that one LEA monitors and two that the other LEA monitors—did not comply with state law and UCP regulations. Additionally, Education does not include the State’s more than 1,100 LEA‑authorized charter schools as part of its monitoring for compliance with UCP. Its decision not to monitor charter schools seems particularly problematic given that we found that UCP policies and procedures of two Los Angeles Unified‑authorized charter schools and two San Diego Unified‑authorized charter schools did not fully comply with UCP regulations. Additionally, although Education monitors LEAs to ensure their compliance with UCP regulations, its most recent review did not identify instances of noncompliance by one LEA we reviewed.



Summary of Recommendations

Legislature

To strengthen accountability for all parties and to make the requirements more uniform, the Legislature should codify UCP regulations into the Education Code to ensure, among other things, the following:

Education

To ensure that it consistently processes UCP complaints and appeals in a timely manner that complies with regulations, Education should designate a central office to receive all complaints and appeals and to monitor its divisions to ensure they meet the required time frames. This central office should also be responsible for establishing a single database to record and track certain information related to all the divisions’ investigations of complaints and reviews of appeals to ensure Education has the information necessary to effectively make informed decisions related to UCP complaints and appeals.

To ensure that it uniformly investigates and reviews all UCP complaints and appeals, Education should establish standard policies and procedures for its divisions to follow when investigating complaints and reviewing appeals.

To ensure that charter schools comply with state law and regulations related to the UCP, Education should include these schools in its reviews of their authorizing LEAs.

To ensure that it provides adequate monitoring of LEAs’ compliance with UCP requirements, Education should revise its monitoring criteria to increase its selection of files to sufficiently detect noncompliance with state laws and regulations.

LEAs

To minimize the number of complaints they receive through the UCP process that do not fall within the purview of UCP regulations, Los Angeles Unified and San Juan Unified should establish a mechanism that allows specified individuals for the districts to promptly discuss with complainants how best to address their issues or complaints and to determine whether their complaints fall under the purview of the UCP before they file complaints.

To ensure that they can defend complaint investigations that exceed the required time frame, Lo Angeles Unified, San Juan Unified, and San Diego Unified should obtain agreements from complainants before extending the investigations beyond 60 days.


Agency Comments

Education agreed with some of our recommendations and indicated it will take steps to implement them. However, it disagreed with other recommendations. For example, it disagreed with our recommendation to designate a central office to ensure it consistently processes UCP complaints in a timely manner.

All three LEAs agreed with our recommendations and indicated that they will take steps to implement them. Los Angeles Unified also provided comments on specific sections.



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