Orange charter school overcharged for disabled student services, district says

·6 min read

A charter school run by UCP of Central Florida appears to have altered student education plans to show children needed more intensive services than really required, wrongly boosting its funding by nearly $60,000, according to an ongoing Orange County Public Schools investigation.

The investigation, prompted by a whistleblower complaint from a former teacher, found that the school’s principal likely changed six students’ plans on her own, without parental consent or input from other school employees, as the law requires, Orange school district documents show.

“The District believes UCP obtained $58,751.00 in additional funding for students to which it was not entitled,” concluded a six-page letter sent to the school in late March.

But the lawyer for the charter school group that educates disabled children denies any wrongdoing by UCP Downtown, which is one of eight charter schools UCP runs in Orange, Osceola and Seminole counties.

“The district arrived at inaccurate conclusions because it did not conduct a thorough investigation or give UCP an opportunity to respond to the allegations about specific students,” its attorney, Shawn Arnold, responded in a letter to the school district.

Education plans were changed because students needed more services, in part because of the “challenges of COVID-19,” Arnold wrote. “Every action that UCP took was intended only to ensure the needs of its students were being properly met.”

The dispute between the agency and the Orange school district — documented in back-and-forth letters — has not been concluded but has resulted in UCP withdrawing its application for a ninth charter school, which was to be considered by the Orange County School Board this week.

Charter schools are public schools run by private groups under a contract, or charter, approved by a local school board. Kia Scott, OCPS senior director for school choice services, warned UCP in a March 25 letter that staff would take into account their recent findings about altered education plans in deciding whether to recommend the school board approve another UCP school.

The investigation began in the fall when a former UCP teacher filed a whistleblower complaint about changes made to students’ Individual Education Plans, commonly called IEPs. The plans, required by federal law, are for children with disabilities who need special education services.

The whistleblower told the Orlando Sentinel that UCP Downtown’s principal called a staff meeting and told teachers to look at their students’ IEPs.

“Fluff them up” was Principal Jodene Shea’s message, said the whistleblower.

“That’s not how an IEP works,” she said in an interview with the Orlando Sentinel. “I heard a lot of red flags.”

The whistleblower now teaches in another county and asked not to be named for fear her new employer would be upset with public criticism of another school. She was new to UCP at the start of the 2020-21 school year, but she said she had taught in special education classrooms elsewhere and knew the plans should not be changed without formal meetings and parental approval.

Florida uses a “matrix of services” to determine how much money schools receive to educate children with disabilities. The state provides more funding for students with more significant disabilities as they typically require more intensive services. The services such children receive and their individual educational goals are documented in the IEP.

The changes made by the UCP principal in late September upped the “matrix level” for the six students and meant the school received from $8,846 to $12,291 more per child, according to Scott’s letter. The revamped IEPs seemed suspicious coming just days before the state’s key October count of students, which is used to help determine state funding, she wrote.

The child whose funding increased the most had his IEP changed on Sept. 30, the letter noted. On that day, the school wrote that the boy needed “additional supports” but no data was included in the document to explain that need, the OCPS letter said. His funding then increased from $10,736 a year to $23,027 a year.

By changing the IEPs and matrixes, the school appeared to have violated the law and its contract with the Orange school board, the letter added. But the district also said UCP had until April 2 to provide documentation that would justify the changed plans.

On April 2, Arnold, the school’s attorney, wrote the district, refuting the district’s allegations and challenging the quality of its investigation, saying it didn’t fully review the files of those six children. UCP provided information on the six students whose funding changes OCPS had questioned and said its own investigation of the whistleblower’s charges did not find any “wrongdoing on the part of UCP Downtown or its staff.”

Arnold wrote that some of the changes were made because previous IEPs were not clear or needed updating. “At no time was any change made to a student’s IEP or matrix of services for an improper reason,” he said.

UCP, which has operated charter schools for about 20 years, said it did not like the “accusatory tone” of the district’s letter and that it planned to invoke the state’s charter school dispute resolution process, as a first step relies on mediation to resolve disputes between a school and its sponsoring school board.

Arnold said neither he nor school staff nor its board of directors would comment to the Sentinel, as its April 2 letter stated its position.

OCPS said UCP’s April 2 letter did not provide information that justified the changed plans or increased funding levels for those students. In an April 9 letter, John Palmerini, a school district attorney, requested more documentation from UCP.

As an example, Palmerini noted that one of the students had an annual IEP review in April but then that child’s IEP was amended on September 30. UCP Downtown used a four-year-old evaluation done by the school district as a reason for the September changes, Palmerini wrote.

“Please explain how that 2016 evaluation by OCPS justifies the change in matrix funding” between April and September 2020, he said.

That letter noted the law requires parents, general education and special education teachers to be involved in writing, or amending, an IEP, but at UCP Downtown, the principal looked to have made these changes on her own.

Palmerini asked the school to document that parents had been notified ahead of time of the meetings — in some cases, he added, the meeting notices were “generated the day of the meeting” —and had waived their rights to attend or to have the teachers attend.

Finally, he said some IEP changes were based not on data but on “teacher reports” or “teacher meetings” and asked for more details. OCPS asked the UCP school to respond by April 16, but it has not.