SALT LAKE CITY — Got a concern about waste, abuse, unethical behavior, misuse of funds or policy violations in Utah public schools?
There's a hotline for that in the Internal Audit Department of the Utah State Board of Education.
They take phone calls, emails, have an online form, receive snail mail and even take in-person visits to assist members of the public, school employees and educators who have concerns about various aspects of public education in Utah.
"Anyone can call and we will listen," said internal audit director Debbie Davis.
The bureaucracy of public education in Utah can be confusing, so one important function of the hotline is referring people to the people or agency that can address their issues.
Teacher hiring, for instance, is the responsibility of local school districts and charter schools, while educator licensure and complaints about teacher misconduct are state functions.
Sometimes hotline users raise issues about state colleges or other state agencies, for which the State School Board has no oversight, Davis said. Those contacts are forwarded to the appropriate agencies.
More often than not, the hotline receives reports on issues that need to be addressed at the local school level and hotline information is relayed to school districts or charter school officials.
"Jurisdictional authority becomes really important," she said.
Hotline use is growing. In the 2019 state fiscal year, the hotline received 227 complaints, up from 156 the previous year and 119 in fiscal year 2017.
About a third of users wish to be anonymous. Most contacts are from parents, although some come from students, local schools and from other departments of the office of the State School Board.
Some people prefer to remain anonymous because they fear retaliation, reprisals from their employers, or in the case of parents, their children might be adversely affected by their complaints.
Regardless of whether a person who contacts the hotline wants to remain anonymous, Internal Audit employees who respond to the hotline need highly specific information to help resolve concerns, Davis said.
It helps to move things along if people can be contacted for additional information such as dates, documents, or in some cases, photographs.
"The level of detail that we get really helps us direct what needs to happen or how we can help," Davis said.
Concerns and complaints are often referred to other sections of the state public education agency.
For instance, a parent who has a concern regarding their child with a disability could be referred to the board's Special Education Services Section.
Or someone with a complaint about a teacher's inappropriate conduct may be referred to the Utah Professional Practices Advisory Commission.
Davis suggests that people who have a concern about something at their local school "start local." That can mean speaking to a teacher or principal. If the issue is not resolved, the next step would be a district or charter school administrator, and then the board of education.
Then, if the issue cannot be resolved, the hotline remains an option, she said.
While the hotline is but one avenue of redress in offices of the State School Board, the Internal Audit office often compares notes with other sections to determine whether parents, students, educators and administrators are struggling with the same issue.
School fees was one of those issues, Davis said.
"School fees is probably a great success story of the hotline, and not just the hotline, but a process of collaboration and convergence within this agency," she said.
Davis said she can't remember who called the meeting "but somehow all of us ended up in a conference room having this meeting. And all of a sudden we were saying 'There's some hotlines about school fees.' And someone else said 'Oh, there's some other concerns about school fees.'
"And everyone was saying 'Wait, this not a silo issue. … This is really big issue. What should we do?'"
Davis suggested an internal audit to assess the scope of the problem and to provide meaningful data to the Utah State Board of Education, should it want to make policy changes.
The state board appointed a task force to further study the issue and make recommendations for rule changes, which were eventually adopted by the board but are still being refined.
Meanwhile, the Utah Legislature's Auditor General launched its own audit, and lawmakers passed legislation intended to ensure better compliance with school fees laws and rules.
The two audits found "widespread and varied violations" of state laws on school fees and fee waivers. The State School Board's internal audit raised concerns about equity, describing the status quo as an "unreasonable system of fees which jeopardizes equal opportunity for all students … based on their ability to pay."
There are now three State School Board employees solely dedicated to school fees.
"We want our students to be protected, to have opportunities and to succeed. More than anything that's what education is about. Our board has been laser focused on that," Davis said.
Interestingly, much of the legislation and rule-making echoes a 1994 court permanent injunction intended to bring Utah school in compliance with state laws on school fees and fee waivers.
State board employees have developed training videos to guide school districts, neighborhood schools and charter schools. "Let's train, let's educate and let's monitor and hold accountable. "Let's make sure people understand that rule and they're doing it right," she said.
That reform started, Davis said, "in part because some hotlines were received and we're still receiving hotlines," she said. Now most of them are referred to the agency's new school fees team.
Davis jokes that she didn't consent to an interview to drum up hotline business. Contacts for the last fiscal year were up 45 percent over the previous year.
It is important that users give the audit team as much information as possible so they can act on the concerns. The office attempts to reach hotline users within two business days to start working on complaints or concerns.
"Data is really important to us. We want the information to fix their concerns," Davis said. "Help us get it right."
Here's five ways to reach the hotline:
• Call: 801-538-7813.
• Email: email@example.com.
• Online: Fill out complaint form at schools.utah.gov/internalaudit/hotlineform.
• Mail: Utah State Board of Education Internal Audit Department, Attention: Debbie Davis, P.O. Box 144200, Salt Lake City, UT 84114-4200.
• Visit the Internal Audit Department in person at 250 E. 500 South, Salt Lake City.