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KANSAS CITY, MO (KCTV) -
Missouri taxpayers might have shelled out money for charter students who don't exist at Hope Academy Charter School in Kansas City.
Six of the school's administrators are now on paid leave as well as other staff. An interim superintendent, LaQuandra Carpenter, was appointed Tuesday night.
A staff member was allegedly paid $700 by a student in exchange for academic credits.
Hope Academy board members said Tuesday that they hare retained independent auditors to review the state's findings, which they said they are taking seriously. While the board hopes to get its charter renewed, the state has worked to ensure that school will remain open through this school year.
In addition, Missouri Auditor Tom Schweich announced Wednesday that he is sending in a team to review attendance records and other reports at the charter school at the request of the charter school's board of directors and the state education agency.
Officials for the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education said this week that they found inflated attendance numbers in a recent annual standard review.
"We actually made a surprise visit to the school on Oct. 9, and out of 636 students, only 174 of them were in attendance on that day," said Sarah Potter, DESE communications coordinator.
That's a stark contrast from how the charter school reported attendance records to the state.
DESE said Hope Academy claimed 99.5 percent of students attended class 90 percent of the time and 11 percent of its students had perfect attendance - that's 8 percent more than the Kansas City School District's average perfect attendance rates.
"The concern here is that the attendance is being inflated and that state dollars are supporting that attendance for a lot of students that are not coming to school," Potter said.
The state funds charter schools according to average attendance numbers. Last year, Hope Academy received $6 million from the state and projected it would need $7.7 million this school year.
DESE said it's too soon to tell how much extra money the school could've received if the numbers are confirmed to be inaccurate.
The school's sponsor, University of Missouri-Kansas City, is responsible for doing its own investigation to confirm DESE's findings.
State education leaders met with UMKC's officials on Friday. In addition to the funding issues, the state is also concerned about four years of low academic achievement. More than 80 percent of students are not proficient in English language arts and 90 percent are not proficient in math.
The state found possible residency violations and testing integrity issues as well. Students were allegedly given academic credit for after-school jobs that had no connection to the school's curriculum.
"We want to make sure students receive an education that will prepare them for life after high school graduation," said Margie Vandeven, a state deputy commissioner. "We are concerned to see reported instructional activities that do not meet minimum standards."
UMKC has until Dec. 1 to present its plan for overhauling Hope Academy to the state.
The lawyer for Hope Academy's Board of Directors said the board never questioned the attendance numbers presented by the administration because much of attendance at the alternative school is outside the traditional classroom setting.
"The school is set up so that they can do virtual learning, they do service learning, they work ad their schedules are very flexible, which is an attractive feature for those types of students," said Dana Cutler.
Cutler explained that many of the students are parents and some are as old as 21 years old.
"Because of that different environment for attendance, it did not seem unusual that there would be a high attendance rate because they have a variety of ways to be at school," the attorney explained.
The state also raised questions about students getting credit for work unrelated to the curriculum, work classified as "service learning."
Potter said an example of service learning would be planting and harvesting a community garden as part of the biology curriculum. She said Hope Academy gave service learning credits for things like babysitting, braiding hair, and the students' regular jobs. State funding is based not just on attendance but also on credit hours, so any misrepresentation in that category also affects tax dollars.
UMKC offered a written statement, saying they always follow the requirements for sponsoring institutions that are spelled out in the Missouri charter school law.
"As a sponsor of Missouri charter schools, the UMKC Charter School Center seeks to protect the public interest and have its sponsored schools perform with academic integrity while their students achieve academic excellence. Additionally, it expects its charter schools to attain high attendance and increased parent involvement; and practice effective governance, including fiscal responsibility and legal compliance.
"In its monitoring role, the UMKC Charter School Center placed Hope Academy on probation last month. This was done because the school's annual performance report results, in three of the last four school years, were below those of the school district in which the charter school is located.
"The Hope Academy superintendent and the president of the board were notified of Hope Academy's probationary status in a letter dated Oct. 15, 2013. At that time, they were also informed that the school was in peril of not having its charter renewed. Renewal applications are due to the Charter School Center in mid-November and then to the State Board in February. The decision on whether or not to renew the Hope Academy charter has not yet been made.
"With regard to attendance issues, the responsibility of the Charter School Center is to review the annual Secretary of the Board Report, which also was reviewed by an independent auditing firm, Daniel Jones & Associates CPA, and submitted to DESE. Daniel Jones and Associates certified Hope Academy's audit as an "unqualified audit," meaning that the audit did not result in any concerns.
"The UMKC Charter School Center is now further investigating the findings of the Oct. 9 unannounced visit to Hope Academy by DESE officials. The UMKC Charter School Center, as sponsor, has been directed to address specific sponsor expectations listed in those findings by Dec. 1 and plans to fully comply with the expectations.
"Phyllis Chase, Ed.D., director of the UMKC Charter School Center, prepared a plan of action for the school to address the identified issues and presented it to the Hope Academy board on Nov. 3. The board declined to accept her plan, and instead developed their own transition plan, with input from legal counsel. Accordingly, Hope Academy has placed some of its administrators and staff on leave. A new interim superintendent, LaQuanda Carpenter, Ed.D., is now in place. Dr. Chase has expressed confidence in the new administrator and believes she can be an asset to the school."
This is the second charter school under UMKC to run into problems after Derrick Thomas Academy lost its charter late last year. UMKC said they pulled the school's charter because of its poor academic performance over the past decade.
UMKC spokesman John Martellaro said they currently sponsor 10 charter schools at 13 sites with some of the schools operating at more than one site.
The Hope Academy Board released the following statement:
"The Hope Academy Board has retained external, independent auditors to review DESE's concerns. The Board takes the issues raised by DESE seriously, as seen by its swift response to the same. It should be noted, that the Board is pursuing renewal of its charter, rather than closure of Hope Academy. The mission of Hope Academy is to provide opportunities to Kansas City students, who have given up on education, to complete their high school diplomas.
"Hope Academy has graduated more than 300 drop outs over the past four years. The majority of these graduates have gone on to college, to the military or to jobs in the community making them productive citizens, rather than economic burdens. By its best conservative estimate, based on studies regarding costs associated with dropouts, Hope Academy graduates will infuse the state and local economies, over an average working life, with more than Sixty Million Dollars ($60,000,000.00), rather than draining resources from the economy as a high school dropout.
"The Hope Academy Board knows that it is the goal of its sponsor--the UMKC Charter Center-and DESE to continue to make sure alternative learning opportunities are available to students in the State of Missouri, generally, and Kansas City, specifically. It is our common goal to successfully and properly provide educational opportunities to area youth. Hope Academy will be able to provide those educational opportunities with the continued support and oversight of the UMKC Charter Center and with additional guidance and assistance from DESE."
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