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Education

Audit: Kansas City's Hope Academy Falsified Records, Received Millions In Overpayments

A state audit charges the now-closed Hope Academy charter school in Kansas City of grossly overstating its attendance and receiving millions of dollars in excess state aid.

The audit says attendance data submitted to the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education in 2012-13 and 2013-14 "was incomplete and inaccurate and significantly overstated actual attendance." That finding wasn't a surprise. DESE did a surprise visit to the school on Paseo in November 2013 and quickly discovered the attendance problem.

What's new is just how much the falsified records cost. According to the audit, Hope Academy overcharged the state $4.3 million in those two years.

The school reported a 97 percent attendance rate to the state. Both DESE and the state audit discovered the attendance rate was actually just 32 percent. (The state average is 95 percent.) While the auditor only went back to 2012, the report suggests the inaccurate reporting started earlier.

"The Hope Academy may have been falsifying attendance data as early as the 2010-2011 school year when it first reported an attendance percentage above the state average," according to the report.

Hope Academy said its mission was to serve students who had dropped out of high school or were in danger of dropping out. The charter was sponsored by the University of Missouri-Kansas City, which sponsors a number of charter schools in Kansas City.

The demise of Hope Academy came quickly after the DESE surprise visit in 2013 uncovered the attendance issue. On Nov. 4, 2013, according to the audit, the Hope Academy board fired several people including Supt. Vonnelle Middleton. Two weeks later, the board told UMKC it was selling two of its buildings, neither of which was ever used for classes.

By that time UMKC had seen enough and notified the Hope Academy board that it would not continue to sponsor the charter. However, at the time UMKC cited academic problems rather than the attendance falsifications.

While the school has been closed since last June, there is still a board and Hope Academy still has money in the bank, the audit says. There are only three of five board members left but they did respond to the audit, mostly blaming the problems on Middleton, the former superintendent. The board says it appears Middleton "intentionally avoided the use of the student information system so that she could order the manual manipulation of data."

The state auditor cannot bring criminal charges. However, a spokesperson says DESE could decide to ask for a criminal case to be opened by the state Attorney General or the local prosecutor. A call to DESE was not immediately returned.

The audit also uncovered irregularities in the reporting of students receiving free and reduced lunch, as well as English language learners.

"Student enrollment was not always properly documented or verified," according to the report.

The lunch program involves federal money and could spark the interest of the U.S. Department of Education Office of Inspector General.

The audit also suggests the school leveraged its inflated state money to obtain loans.

"The Hope Academy's state revenues (based on inflated attendance) contributed to a substantial fund balance that allowed Hope Academy to obtain approximately $2.25 million in financing and undertake large expansion projects," the report says.

In almost all instances, the board response blamed the issues on Middleton.

Sam Zeff covers education for KCUR. He's also co-host of KCUR's political podcast Statehouse Blend. Follow him on Twitter @samzeff.

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