MAPLEWOOD, NJ - A week after launching an internal investigation into what were dubbed “sloppy” procedures related to Columbia High School (CHS) student attendance requirements, the school board voted to hire an outside firm to conduct an audit of attendance and grading policies after district officials described the situation as “too much for them to look into by themselves.”

The board voted, 8-0, on June 14 to authorize the issuance of a request for proposals, or RFP, to hire a firm to conduct the audit. The approved resolution stated the chosen firm would “conduct an audit of Columbia High School policies and procedures, including but not limited to attendance and grading.”

The move follows Interim Superintendent Thomas Ficarra’s revelation two weeks ago that he was conducting an internal investigation into complaints of attendance and possible grading policy inconsistencies. 

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“My initial reaction to that was that we would look into it,” Ficarra told the board. “The further we looked, the more we found a number of inconsistencies and a lack of clarity in the policies and procedures.”

Ficarra cited as an example conflicting policies regarding excused absences for students who are taking driving tests, noting one teacher or administrator may allow it, while another might not and both would have portion of the policy to back them up. He also said there were varied policies on how many "lates" to a class would count toward an absence, in some cases varying widely. 

“Our actual district policy had conflicting policies within it,” he said.

He later added that Acting Assistant Superintendent Donna Rando and Interim Guidance Director Scott White advised him that the internal review “was too much for them to look into by themselves since they both have full-time jobs… so we are going to put out an RFP… for an audit of the policies and procedures at Columbia High School.

“We’ll have them do an audit and make recommendations so we can start the school year with written policies and procedures that are known to everyone,” Ficarra added. “And students and parents and teachers can all be on the same page. And look into any possible irregularities that may have occurred.”

Ficarra, who has been serving as acting superintendent since August 2017, said two weeks ago he was told of the concerns in early June and hoped to have an internal report sooner, but the issue turned out to be bigger than first thought. 

At issue with attendance is the procedure for students who have achieved passing grades in a subject through tests and assignments, but have missed too many school days and face failure due to the lack of attendance. Ficarra said there is a procedure in place for them to make up that missed time through “credit recovery,” in which they must spend a set amount of time in a classroom with a certified teacher in order to regain the lost attendance. 

He said most districts have a panel that reviews each student’s case and approves the credit recovery plan and approach, but CHS does not have such a system: “That seems to be missing here.”

Because of that, procedures were not based on a districtwide standard and were different in different cases: “It seemed like it was left to teacher discretion and there are pretty simple ways of calculating it,” he explained earlier this month. “You might have done one thing using your discretion and the next teacher might have done another thing using his discretion when the right thing would be for the superintendent and the board to sit down and say ‘here is the formula.’”

One of the concerns of some parents, according to sources, was that the credit recovery sessions were not overseen by properly credentialed teachers who are certified in the related class being recovered. 

But Ficarra stressed that none of the issues involved improperly changing grades, which has been an allegation at the New Rochelle, N.Y., school district where former South Orange Maplewood Superintendent Brian Osborne now works and recently announced his resignation effective at the end of the next school year.

In that case, claims have surfaced that grades were wrongly inflated for online classes and an internal review launched.

”People are interpreting what happened in New Rochelle as what happened here, and that is not the case,” Ficarra said previously. “People think that because Osborne was here that is going on here, but it is not.”

Ficarra also said many of the issues are related to cases in which a student switched classes in the middle of the semester, often from an honors class to a lower-level course, but the final credit was not properly given.

He had initially balked at the idea of an outside audit, saying two week ago: “Some people said we need an outside review, my contention is we have an outside review: it’s called me.” But apparently that is no longer the case.

District officials have set no timeline for the RFP or the audit to begin or end, but indicated it would hopefully be done in time for any policy change to be completed before classes begin in September.

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