A legislative audit has raised questions about how Kansas school districts are spending money for at-risk programs and whether those programs are well-administered.

The auditors examined a small sample of school districts, only 10 out of 296 districts statewide. But in their report this month, they said half of those 10 were struggling with their at-risk programs.

Such programs are designed to help students who are considered at-risk of failing. The state expects to spend $368 million during the current school year on such programs. Funding for the programs increased dramatically in recent years.

Legislators are expected to scrutinize all spending closely after their 2009 session convenes Jan. 12, because of the state’s budget problems. Researchers project that the state will end its current fiscal year on June 30 with a $141 million budget deficit and, if the problems aren’t addressed, the gap will grow to more than $1 billion by June 30, 2010.

Auditors said two districts they examined, Chase-Raymond in Rice County and Sylvan Grove in Lincoln County, use “a significant amount” of at-risk dollars for teachers’ raises, without adding teacher positions during the past three years.

“We think it’s not the Legislature’s intent,” said Barb Hinton, director of the Legislature’s auditing division.

State law doesn’t specifically prohibit using at-risk dollars for current teachers’ salaries but implies that the money is supposed to finance services beyond those offered to all students, such as specialized tutoring.

But Carl Helm, superintendent at Chase-Raymond, said his district followed state Department of Education guidelines.

“I feel at-risk money is well spent within our district,” he told The Topeka Capital-Journal. “Teachers use many new teaching strategies and have been able to do a better job of teaching at-risk students.”

Sylvan Grove and an another district, Chautauqua County, were cited by auditors as having a “poor process” for educating at-risk children. Auditors said they had informal or incomplete approaches to assessing student needs, delivering services, training teachers and monitoring progress.

Administrators for both said they would comply with recommendations in the report.

“We plan to work on the recommendations for our school district,” said Jude Stecklein, superintendent of Sylvan Grove.

Auditors said the Spring Hill district in Johnson County had marginal teacher development plans for its at-risk programs. They described the school-improvement plans developed by the Syracuse district in Hamilton County as “generic” and not geared specifically enough for helping migrant children.

Syracuse Superintendent Joan Friend said the district saw a surge in the number of at-risk students speaking English as a second language who attend class for a few weeks, move away and return as their parents move from job to job.