LAUSD also demanded $800,000 back from the archdiocese. The district alleged that the archdiocese had obtained overpayments by using “dirty data,” and warned it would recover the money “by any available means.”
In a statement provided to Angelus, a LAUSD spokesperson said the school district “strives to comply with all applicable rules and regulations regarding the provision of Title I equitable services. Los Angeles Unified is in the process of reviewing the investigation report.”
Escala believes the archdiocese would win any appeal because the U.S. Department of Education recently issued a similar ruling in a parallel dispute between LAUSD and Jewish schools in Los Angeles.
The impact on students grew worse in 2020 when school eligibility for federal pandemic assistance was linked to Title I eligibility, said Nancy Portillo, assistant superintendent of Catholic schools. Only the 17 Catholic schools that LAUSD had certified for Title I received federal help to protect staff and students under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security or CARES Act.
“Our poorest of the poor schools got zero dollars from CARES for the coronavirus,” Portillo said.
When she learned of the favorable ruling, “I cried,” Portillo said. “It’s not even the money. It’s that what they are doing is wrong. It’s wrong.”
The archdiocese cited an email from a district auditor as evidence of a deliberate district agenda to cut funds from Catholic schools. “[T]he Archdiocese of LA receives over 10 million dollars of Title I funds every year, money that could otherwise be allocated to LAUSD schools,” the auditor stated.
In May 2018, the district had abruptly changed the methods for documenting Title I need, insisting that each school submit paperwork that had long been compiled by the archdiocese. The report describes the district repeatedly changing forms, setting unattainable deadlines, then denying aid if the paperwork was deemed incomplete.
“One spreadsheet alone went from six columns to seven and then to 13 columns, all in the same year,” Portillo said in an interview.
According to the report, in 2019, “LAUSD insisted on a hard deadline of June 26 for [the archdiocese] to produce in 12 days all underlying surveys for 123 schools and over 12,000 funding-eligible students. The district was effectively requesting a full census (equivalent to a 100% review) of all [archdiocesan schools, with 12 calendar days to comply, during a summer break when most schools were closing or closed.”
When the archdiocese was unable to meet the deadline, the report said, the school district removed all but the 17 schools from Title I, based solely on its own review of 24 schools.
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After its review concluded that many students were not low-income, “LAUSD essentially weaponized the review by refusing to allow [the archdiocese] to consult regarding the review findings or to challenge or correct them by, for example, providing missing surveys, supplying missing grades and/or addresses, or providing alternative sources of poverty data,” the investigation report said.
Furthermore, “LAUSD even told the archdiocese that if it wanted copies of the review reports it should file a PRA request[.]” A Public Records Act request is how any Californian can pursue government records.
The report says that “LAUSD had an obligation to give ADLA the requested information. LAUSD’s hide-the-ball approach breached both the spirit and the letter of the duty to consult.”
The loss of Title I funds has hurt students, Escala said. For decades, children from neighborhoods such as Watts and South LA relied on Title I tutors.
In 2018 “our schools received a letter saying that your specialist will no longer be at your school. They will report to collect their personal belongings,” he said.
“It was heartbreaking. We’ve been fighting every day to win back those legally entitled services for the children who went without,” he added.