Charter schools throughout Missouri can pull a valuable lesson from the failures of Hope Academy: Attendance records must be detailed and accurate. Anything less than that will be trouble.
A state audit this month found that the former Kansas City charter school inflated its attendance records, enabling it to collect more than $4.3 million in state funds in the last two years of its operation.
Hope Academy opened in August 2009 as a school for high school dropouts with the University of Missouri-Kansas City as its sponsor. UMKC withdrew its sponsorship in December 2013, and the charter’s last building closed in June 2014.
Hope Academy had reported attendance rates as high as 97.9 percent for the 2012-2013 school year. That made no sense given that the school had a history of poor academic performance. Student achievement in most cases is directly linked to attendance. The state’s 2013 annual performance report showed that of 140 possible points, Hope Academy received only 24, or 17.1 percent of the total.
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Alvin Brooks, president of the Hope Academy board, told The Star this week that the students included some with criminal records, some with ankle bracelets on probation or parole, teen parents and some who had been put out of other schools. Yet, some Hope graduates have gone on to college.
Short of micromanaging, the board depended on the administration for honesty and integrity, Brooks said. Three audits missed the attendance problem.
“We did everything as a board that we were supposed to do unless you go into the classroom and do a head count every day,” he said.
Fortunately, state education officials made a surprise visit to the school in October 2013. They counted only 174 of Hope Academy’s 636 students, or just 27 percent, present that day.
The Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education contacted the state Auditor’s Office, which began its investigation in November 2013 over possible falsification of attendance data. The audit eventually found that the school received about $3.1 million in overpayments in state funding for the 2012-2013 school year and $1.24 million for the 2013-2014 school year.
“When you have people making decisions without appropriate oversight, there is always a risk of fraud or abuse,” the auditor’s office said in a prepared statement. “At any level of government — state, city or school — we have to make sure we have checks and balances. Our goal is to prevent the opportunity for fraud, but when we find it, we’ll call it out. Hope Academy failed these kids. These students didn’t get the education they deserved, and that’s something we’ll never really be able to recover.”
In addition to inaccurate attendance and enrollment reporting, the audit found deficiencies in internal controls, noncompliance with legal provisions, faulty management practices and procedures, and insufficient planning and oversight of the charter school closure.
The audit also was right to criticize the charter school for giving students credit for service learning involving personal activities such as grass cutting, babysitting, grocery shopping, dog walking and housecleaning. “These activities were not aligned with state service learning standards,” the audit said.
The state has been unable to recover much of the education funds that went to Hope Academy. The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has turned the matter over to the Missouri attorney general, and its investigation is underway.
Brooks said the board alerted the county prosecutor’s office as soon as the problem was uncovered. He wonders now what will happen to the kids that other schools had given up on. “The need is still there, and that need is not now being served,” he said.
Dana Cutler, legal counsel for Hope Academy, said the charter school board is in the process of dissolving, and any funds that remain will be returned to the state. That’s good, but it is unlikely to cover the full amount that was overpaid.
Kansas City has close to 20 charter schools, spanning 30 campuses with about 10,000 students and in 2014-2015 had a total state funding of more than $107 million. Charter schools have been a public school alternative with their own operating boards since 1998. They must be in compliance with all state laws, held responsible to the community and the students they serve, provide a high quality curriculum and be accountable for the taxpayers’ funds they receive.
“Falsifying data needs to be found out and dealt with,” said Douglas Thaman, executive director of the Missouri Charter Public School Association.
Charges may result from investigations into the Hope Academy debacle. At the very least, the critical state audit properly has put all charter schools on notice that nothing short of serving students and their communities responsibly will be acceptable.