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North Carolina’s audit of pandemic-year truancy sparks debate about its value

classroom desks

State Auditor Beth Wood Thursday released a report on attendance and truancy data during the pandemic-disrupted 2020-2021 school year.

The auditor’s report, which was mandated by the General Assembly, comes long after the nation has recognized that chronic absenteeism rose and academic achievement dived while classes were remote. And it has sparked debate among state officials about whether it’s valuable information or a waste of time and money.

The study examines six North Carolina districts, including Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, and mostly concludes that the state’s Department of Public Instruction couldn’t provide the data required for the auditors to complete the analysis.

In a video accompanying the report, Wood acknowledged it was an unusual year but said chronic absences reduce learning, whatever the cause.

“This audit is not diminishing the crisis brought about by COVID on North Carolina school systems, the students, their families and teachers,” Wood says. “However, COVID did have a profound effect on student attendance — which again affects a student’s ability to be successful in North Carolina schools.”

Mandate for analysis

In June 2021, state lawmakers asked the Department of Public Instruction to tally the number of students who had lost contact with school districts in the preceding school year, as well as how many of them would be retained. “After reviewing the survey results, legislators still had questions and concerns regarding student attendance and truancy during the 2020-2021 school year,” the auditor’s report says.

In November 2021, the General Assembly passed a law requiring DPI to contract with the auditor’s office to analyze data on six districts — two large, two medium-sized and two small. The auditor’s office chose CMS, Winston Salem/Forsyth, Johnston County, Robeson County, Henderson County and Hyde County. The report says state attendance data was “not complete or accurate” for five of the six districts, leaving Henderson County in western North Carolina as the only one that could be fully analyzed. The report was supposed to be finished more than a year ago, but the audit report says problems with DPI data “resulted in over 1,700 additional audit hours at an estimated increased cost of $205,000” and delayed completion.

Wood found inadequate data to analyze CMS attendance patterns but faulted the district for failing to send required warning letters after students accumulated three, six and 10 unexcused absences.

At the time Earnest Winston was superintendent of CMS. He faced questions from then-school board member Sean Strain, who wanted data about chronic absences and referrals of truants to the court system for possible prosecution. Winston replied in the spring of 2022 that he did not have data on warning letters and was not making criminal referrals. Winston said that “criminal prosecution of parents for attendance is regarded as poor practice and is a highly ineffective method of improving student attendance.”

Critiques of the report

Crystal Hill, who became CMS superintendent this year, said in a written response to the audit that she disagrees with the findings and thinks that auditors failed to fully account for the disruption of a pandemic that not only disrupted classes but the lives of students and employees.

“The District worked to adhere to attendance and truancy laws, but the District’s primary focus was supporting its people,” Hill wrote. However, she added that “as a result of this audit, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools has implemented new policies and processes to ensure that attendance and truancy laws are followed, and that all data is complete and accurate.”

Meanwhile, the Department of Public Instruction released a statement taking issue with the auditor’s report. In a news release state Superintendent Catherine Truitt says the report unnecessarily reprimands state and school district staff without providing helpful information.

“In addition, (the Office of the State Auditor) wasted $350,000 of COVID-19 relief funding and well over 1,000 hours of NCDPI and public school unit staff time creating a report that did not answer the questions posed by the General Assembly,” the news release says.

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Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.