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SALT LAKE CITY — State auditors recently found reasons to praise education administrators for the transparency, accuracy and reliability of financial reporting in public schools.
But in the process of looking through school transparency data reported on Utah's public finance website, auditors "stumbled across" a trend that concerned them, according to performance audit supervisor Chris Otto.
Since 2009, 39 school districts and charters released personally identifiable student information in more than 5,500 transactions, according to the audit released Wednesday by the Office of the Utah State Auditor.
Most of those transactions linked with student names contained information on academic services, testing, medical services, special education and legal information. When the trend appeared to be "widespread," auditors expanded the original scope of their report to address the problem, Otto said.
"That was identified and kind of turned some heads," he said. "We certainly didn't start out looking for that."
Auditors informed the Utah State Office of Education, which then contacted the website administrators and schools that were affected to remove the information, according to Brad Smith, state superintendent of public instruction.
Smith said some of the disclosures were due to practices in how reporting was regularly handled, and others appear to be clerical errors and less widespread.
(The report) is a good, timely reminder that we need to be careful stewards of student data.
–Brad Smith, superintendent of public instruction
"We were able to identify some systemic issues that were allowing that to occur," Smith said. "To the extent there was an inadvertent disclosure, it has been corrected and is no longer occurring. And going forward, I believe each district has a process in place to avoid it repeating."
The 39 districts and charters involved were not identified in the report, but Smith said they are responsible for reaching out to students and families that may have been affected.
The audit states that the problem could likely be more prevalent than the 5,500 transactions that were found with sensitive student data given the frequency of some first and last names, as well as other factors that limit auditors' ability to verify all potential disclosures. Overall, about 27 million transactions on the state website were reviewed.
Smith said the 5,500 transactions and even other potential disclosures would be "a needle in the haystack" given the large amount of data that is reported. It illustrates a difficult balance administrators have to strike between student privacy and public transparency, but the disclosure of sensitive student information is an issue they take seriously, he said.
"(The report) is a good, timely reminder that we need to be careful stewards of student data, and when we have an issue, we take it seriously, we react immediately and we cure the problem as fast as we can," he said.
Other takeaways from the audit
But other takeaways from the audit show most schools are reporting financial data that accurately represent what's going on in schools, Otto said. The report also found some schools are saving money through practices such as tracking per-student costs and building capacity utilization, and monitoring costs and revenues for food services.
Not all practices identified in the report can be universally applied, Smith said, but they do serve as a platform for discussing how Utah's education system is performing and how administrators can scale solutions to fit unique challenges in their school.
"It's very much about the exact process you would expect a successful sports team to go through," he said. "You review your tapes, you prepare for the next game by looking at what's happened in the past. It's critical."
The report found six districts and seven charter schools failed to accurately or completely report financial information to the state website, improperly accounting for a total of almost $900 million. That portion represents about 17 percent of 2014 education expenditures, but the majority of school expenditures appear to be accurate, the report states.
Otto said using technology to analyze data at the level of individual transactions will help schools identify areas of needed improvement, as well as efficiencies that can be replicated in schools statewide.
Some of the recommendations from the report include providing training for school administrators to prevent improper disclosures or inaccuracies in the future, as well as comparing financial and academic data to find additional cost-saving practices.
"We feel this is a really positive report," Otto said. "The (schools') financial data, at least what they submitted in financial reports, is more reliable and representative than I think we previously believed it would be.
"We're very pleased to be able to come out with a report that says that some things are going right."