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California State Auditor Report Number : 2016-109

Uniform Complaint Procedures
The California Department of Education’s Inadequate Oversight Has Led to a Lack of Uniformity and Compliance in the Processing of Complaints and Appeals



Education is responsible for administering and enforcing the laws governing the State’s educational programs. Some of these programs require processes for responding to complaints from students, parents, or community members of schools or school districts. For a number of years, Education handled such complaints by developing individual complaint procedures for each program. However, this approach resulted in a variety of complaint procedures that were confusing to both complainants and LEAs. In 1990 Education proposed new regulations to establish a UCP for its then‑existing educational programs that required complaint procedures—the Special Education and Consolidated Categorical Aid programs—as well as for numerous other programs. The UCP became effective in September 1991 and provides a formal system for processing complaints from individuals, public agencies, or organizations alleging violations of state or federal laws that govern specified educational programs.

Since 1991 both federal and state laws have required additional educational programs to be subject to the UCP. As shown in Table 1, as of June 30, 2016, the UCP covered complaints involving discrimination, harassment, intimidation, or bullying; various educational programs, such as Adult Education, Child Nutrition, and Special Education; pupil fees; and school facilities.

Table 1
California Department of Education Programs Covered Under the Uniform Complaint Procedures as of June 30, 2016
Career and College Transition Division Agricultural Vocational Education September 25, 1991
Career Tech Ed Leadership and Instructional Support Office Adult Education and Regional Occupational Centers and Programs September 25, 1991
Categorical Programs Complaints Management Office No Child Left Behind Act (2001) programs (Titles I–VII)* January 1, 2005
Pupil Instruction: Course Periods Without Educational Content or Previously Completed Courses January 1, 2016
Unlawful Pupil Fees January 1, 2013
Coordinated School Health and Safety Office Education Rights of Foster and Homeless Students January 1, 2016
Tobacco‑Use Prevention Education January 1, 2002
Coordinated Student Support Division American Indian Education Centers and Early Childhood Education Program Assessments January 1, 2007
Early Education and Support Division Child Care and Development September 25, 1991
Educational Equity UCP Appeals Office Discrimination; harassment; intimidation; bullying; student lactation accommodations; and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning resources September 25, 1991
January 1, 2016 (Lactation)
Expanded Learning Division After School Education and Safety August 19, 1998
Local Agency Systems Support Office§ Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF)

Local Control and Accountability Plans (LCAP)
July 1, 2013
School Fiscal Services Division§
Nutrition Services Division Child Nutrition September 25, 1991
School Facilities and Transportation Services Division School Facilities (Williams Complaints) September 29, 2004
Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Office Physical Education: Instructional Minutes October 9, 2015
Special Education Division Special Education September 25, 1991

Sources: California Department of Education’s Uniform Complaint Procedures Brochure; California Code of Regulations, title 5, section 4610; Education Code, sections 222, 32289‑35186, 48853‑52334.

* No Child Left Behind Act (2001) includes improving academic achievement, compensatory education, English learner programs, and migrant education (to be replaced by the Every Student Succeeds Act beginning in school year 2016–17).

Student lactation accommodations became subject to the UCP effective January 1, 2016.

Formerly the After School Division.

§ Local Agency Systems Support Office handles content‑ and procedure‑related complaints and appeals for the LCFF and the LCAP. The School Fiscal Services Division handles fiscal‑related complaints and appeals for these two programs. According to a fiscal consultant for the School Fiscal Services Division, the division has not received any fiscal‑related complaints or appeals for LCFF and LCAP from July 1, 2013, through June 30, 2016.

LEAs' Responsibilities Under UCP Regulations

LEAs have the primary responsibility for ensuring that the education programs they administer comply with applicable state and federal laws and regulations. Consequently, Education’s UCP regulations state that complaints against LEAs, with specified exceptions, should be filed with the LEAs. The regulations require the LEAs to adopt policies and procedures for the investigation and resolution of UCP complaints and to annually notify in writing interested parties—including students, employees, and parents or guardians of students—of their complaint procedures. Further, the regulations require the LEAs to designate the staff or unit responsible for receiving, investigating, and resolving complaints and to ensure that the designated staff or unit is knowledgeable about the laws and programs that it is assigned to investigate.

UCP regulations also establish certain requirements related to the investigations LEAs must conduct after receiving UCP complaints. For example, when LEAs receive complaints, they must give the complainants an opportunity to present relevant information or evidence. As shown in Figure 1, LEAs have 60 calendar days from their receipt of complaints to complete their investigations and issue their written decisions. However, if the complaints involve instructional materials, school facilities, or teacher vacancies or misassignments—known as Williams complaints—this time frame is 45 working days. The regulations also authorize LEAs to resolve complaints before they are formally filed and to use methods other than those prescribed in UCP regulations to reach resolutions.

Figure 1
General Process for Resolving Complaints Filed With Local Educational Agencies Under the Uniform Complaint Procedures

Figure 1 is a flowchart that displays the general process for resolving complaints filed with Local Educational Agencies (LEAs) under the Uniform Complaint Procedures, including the review of appeals filed with the California Department of Education (Education) regarding LEAs’ decisions on complaints.

Sources: California Code of Regulations, title 5, sections 4600 through 4687, and California State Auditor’s review of complaints and appeals at Education and the following school districts: Los Angeles Unified, San Diego Unified, and San Juan Unified.

* According to state regulations, the principal or LEA must remedy a valid Williams complaint—complaint regarding instructional materials, teacher vacancy or misassignment, or school facilities—within a reasonable time period not to exceed 30 working days from the date the complaint was received. The principal or LEA must report to the complainant the resolution of the complaint, or in other words issue a decision, within 45 working days of the initial filing if the complainant identifies himself or herself and requests a response.

Under UCP regulations, not all Williams complaints can be appealed. Only those complaints involving a condition of a facility that poses an emergency or urgent threat can be appealed.

The timeline varies depending on the type of complaint and whether additional investigation by Education is necessary.

Education’s Responsibilities Under UCP Regulations

UCP regulations establish that complainants may appeal LEAs’ decisions to Education within 15 days of receiving those decisions. A complainant who chooses to appeal must state in writing to Education the basis for the appeal—whether the facts were incorrect or the law was misapplied. Education then notifies the LEA, which forwards its investigation file to Education for review. Based on the facts in the file, Education determines whether the LEA followed its complaint procedures, whether the evidence supports the relevant findings of fact in the decision, and whether the LEA’s conclusions of law are correct.

Depending on the result of its review, Education may take a number of different actions. Specifically, if Education finds that the LEA’s decision is supported by substantial evidence and that its legal conclusions are not contrary to law, it must deny the appeal. However, if Education determines that the LEA’s decision is inadequate because it fails to address an issue raised in the complaint, it lacks findings of fact, or it misapplies the law, Education may return the decision to the LEA, which must correct the deficiencies within 20 days. Further, if an appeal raises an issue that was not included in the original complaint, Education must refer the new issue to the LEA for resolution as a new complaint. The LEA then has 60 days to complete the investigation.

Finally, if Education finds that the appeal has merit, it may issue a decision based on the evidence in the investigation file, remand the investigation to the LEA for further investigation of the allegations, or conduct a further investigation of the allegations itself if necessary. If Education finds adequate evidence in the investigation file or investigates the allegations itself, it must issue a decision on the appeal. The decision must include a finding that the LEA did or did not comply with its complaint procedures, Education’s findings of fact and conclusions of law regarding the issue on appeal, and whether the LEA complied with applicable state or federal regulations. If Education determines the LEA violated a legal requirement, Education must prescribe remedial orders or corrective actions to address the violation.

The time in which Education is required to consider certain complaints and appeals and issue its decisions is governed by a variety of legal authority, depending on the program involved. For example, complaints related to special education are required by federal regulations to be completed and sent to the complainant within 60 days. Similarly, an appeal relating to pupil fees is required by state law to be completed and a decision issued to the appellant within 60 days of Education receiving the appeal. However, other appeals have no specific timeline for completion, which potentially leads to confusion among appellants and LEAs. After Education issues its decision on an investigation report, both the complainants and the LEAs have 35 days to request reconsideration by the State Superintendent of Public Instruction (State Superintendent). A request for reconsideration must designate the specific basis for reconsidering any of the findings, conclusions, or corrective actions in Education’s decision. The request must also specify whether the findings of fact are incorrect or whether the law has been misapplied. According to state regulation, the State Superintendent may respond in writing to the parties indicating a modification of the specific findings, conclusions, or corrective actions, or may deny the request for reconsideration.

Regulations also allow Education to accept requests that it directly investigate complaints in certain circumstances. For instance, Education can directly intervene if complainants request anonymity because they assert that they would be in danger of retaliation and would suffer immediate and irreparable harm if they filed the complaints with the LEAs. Further, federal regulations require that Education directly investigate and resolve all complaints it receives related to nutrition services and children with disabilities. Education refers to complaints it investigates directly as direct intervention. When Education determines that direct intervention is warranted, it must complete its investigation within 60 days of receiving a request and then issue a report within 60 days of completing the investigation. If Education determines that a request does not meet the specified criteria to investigate a complaint directly, it must refer the complaint to the LEA or appropriate state or federal agency for investigation.

Education's Monitoring of LEAs

Federal and state laws and federal regulations require Education to monitor LEAs to ensure their compliance with a broad range of federal education program requirements, including requirements related to the UCP. To manage its monitoring process, Education has divided the State’s 1,887 LEAs into four groups. According to Education, each year it selects for review a total of about 120 LEAs from two of the four groups. It performs on‑site reviews of the selected LEAs from one of these two groups and conducts desk reviews of the selected LEAs from the other. The LEAs in the two groups not scheduled for review in a given year receive follow‑up reviews as needed. Education alternates the groups that receive on‑site and desk reviews to ensure it reviews all groups equally. According to Education’s website, its Federal Program Monitoring office coordinates the review of LEAs’ compliance with the various requirements for 14 programs, including UCP. Education’s Categorical Programs Complaints Management Office (Categorical Complaints Management) is responsible for both the on‑site and desk reviews of LEAs’ compliance with laws and regulations related to UCP.

As part of its on‑site review, Categorical Complaints Management reviews LEAs’ UCP policies and procedures to ensure they include complaint procedures for all relevant programs. It also reviews a random selection of LEAs’ UCP files and decisions to ensure that they meet specified regulatory requirements. Categorical Complaints Management performs similar reviews during its desk reviews, but relies on LEAs to self‑certify that they met specified regulatory requirements. When the review team identifies findings of noncompliance, Education’s protocols require the LEAs in question to provide evidence that they have corrected the findings.

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