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Kansas City Schools' Own Audit Found The District Was Sloppy About Tracking Attendance

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KCPS Superintendent Mark Bedell released details about an external investigation into attendance data last week.

The Kansas City Public Schools district didn’t consistently check on chronically absent students, improperly used out of school suspension practices and didn’t effectively train employees on state attendance rules last year, according to a June 2019 internal attendance audit obtained by KCUR through a records request. 

“The widespread nature of data irregularities and questionable attendance practices demonstrates, at the very least, a lack of inconsistency in oversight by the District administration over attendance reporting,” the report found. 

KCPS has made changes as a result of both the internal report and a subsequent external investigation, including revising training, standardizing attendance documentation across the district and creating an attendance standard operating procedure, according to a KCPS news release. The district also has dedicated a full-time employee to attendance, according to a district spokeswoman. 

The audit was sparked by a former KCPS employee who reported that student attendance records were falsified. KCPS launched the internal investigation in February. 

After information implicated current employees, the district hired an outside law firm to conduct a separate investigation. That external report wasn’t released to KCUR because it contained personnel information and related to potential legal action. 

The external investigation found attendance data was falsified from 2013 to 2016. Records haven’t been altered since Superintendent Mark Bedell started, according to a summary released last week. 

The internal audit looked at the 2018-2019 school year. While it did not find that data was falsified, the audit points to a lack of oversight and practices that didn’t comply with state requirements. 

The audit took the district to task for not checking on students who missed class for five or more consecutive days, saying there were “numerous students with chronic absenteeism with little or no intervention actions.” 

Schools failed to meet a state requirement to keep attendance records for five years, according to the audit. Eleven schools didn’t have student attendance records for the 2015-2016 school year. That is the same year the issue of falsified student attendance records was most glaring, resulting in boosting attendance data, which gave the district additional state funding. 

“The lack of appropriate supporting documentation was systemic for certain schools, causing significant concerns about school- or district-wide attendance,” the report states. “No district-wide or school standardized storage process, no verification or tracking process of certifying that reports are reviewed and signed. No backup systems are in place to protect the attendance accounting records.”

KCPS spokeswoman Kelly Wachel said the district is using records it does have from the 2015-2016 school year to find the amount of money owed to the state for the misreporting of attendance data during that year. The district has since adopted standard operating procedures and checks and balances, according to Wachel. 

The audit also found 12,560 instances where teachers didn’t consistently take attendance or attendance wasn’t taken within the first 20 minutes of class, sometimes resulting in an incorrect automatic call to the student’s parents saying their child was absent. 

Schools used the out-of-school suspension process to give students a “zero” day suspension, meaning students couldn’t come back to school without a mandatory conference with a parent. This gave students “a legal way to skip school” and “allowed students to be absent several days before any staff questioned the student absences,” according to the audit. 

The audit also found errors in the 2018-19 school year attendance data because a couple of classifications were used incorrectly. That was corrected when it was discovered. 

Mallory McGowin, a spokeswoman for the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, said that because of the holiday schedule, she was unable to confirm who at DESE had seen the internal report. 

“The department can provide a more informed response on Monday when we plan to share findings related to the dollar amount KCPS owes back to the state and area charter schools,” McGowin said.

Aviva Okeson-Haberman is the Missouri government and politics reporter at KCUR 89.3. Follow her on Twitter: @avivaokeson.

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