Kansas City Schools Falsified Records to Gain State Accreditation, District Says

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Kansas City Public Schools, under previous leadership, falsified student attendance records for three years, resulting in undeserved higher state performance scores. Now, officials say, that misrepresentation could cost the district some money.

Superintendent Mark Bedell told The Star on Tuesday that the records were manipulated from 2013 to 2016, before he was hired.

“I can assure you that there hasn’t been any anomalies or any funny business since I came here,” Bedell said. “What we earned last year (in state annual performance scores) is authentic.”

The district learned about the data tampering from the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education in January. A former KCPS employee had reported to the state that district employees, in an effort to achieve full accreditation scores, manipulated student attendance records.

What isn’t clear is how much the tampering impacted the state dollars the district received for daily student attendance. Missouri districts are paid for every day that a child is in school.

District officials know that the state overpaid KCPS and that the money will have to be paid back. “This district can’t afford to take a hit for one penny,” Bedell said.

How much KCPS owes will be released after the state confirms the amount, said Kelly Wachel, district spokeswoman.

The state education department, in a statement released Wednesday, expressed appreciation for “the Kansas City Public Schools’ thorough and transparent response to this serious issue regarding allegations of falsified student attendance records.” The department said it is working with KCPS officials “to correct the falsified attendance data and collect the money owed back to the state and the Kansas City area charter schools.”

The tampering occurred during the tenure of former Superintendent Steve Green, who left in 2015 to lead a district outside Atlanta, and Interim Superintendent Al Tunis, who took over until Bedell was joined the district in July 2016.

The Dekalb County School District severed ties with Green last week. He has been under fire from the Georgia Department of Education, which, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, is investigating him for failing to report to the state potential ethics violations by teachers.

Reached Tuesday night, Green said the attendance tampering “happened without my knowledge. Had I known about it, I certainly would have taken action … and there would have been consequences for those actions.”

Tunis told The Star that the district contacted him and asked about the attendance data manipulation, “but they did not give me any of the specifics.” He said he had not been accused by the district or the state of falsifying the records. “I don’t know anything about it,” Tunis said, adding that he was not saying it did not happen, only that he was not aware of it.

Bedell said on Tuesday that when the district learned about the data, it immediately launched an internal investigation. In May, after a review of employee emails and other information implicating several current employees, the district hired a law firm to do a separate investigation.

The independent investigators found that “a small circle of KCPS employees changed student attendance records in the district’s student information system,” according to a district report released Wednesday morning.

District leaders confirmed there were seven people in that circle but declined to identify them, citing privacy laws. Three of those responsible no longer work for the district, and the other four have been put on paid administrative leave.

KCPS reported the finding of the external investigation to the state earlier this month.

“While we are disappointed and frustrated by the findings of this report, we are also grateful that the current district leadership took decisive action to address the outcomes of the report with the appropriate parties,” said Pattie Mansur, who chairs the KCPS board of education. “It is upsetting to find ourselves in this place.” Mansur, who was on the school board at the time the attendance records were falsified, said that when attendance went up, “it was an anomaly but not so dramatic for us to be suspicious.”

For years, the KCPS has failed to meet the state requirements for attendance. Attendance is one of the criteria, along with such things as graduation rates, career readiness and academic performance, the state uses to measure how well a district is performing. Those performance scores determine whether a district meets full accreditation. Currently, KCPS is provisionally accredited. To receive full accreditation status, KCPS must meet state requirements two consecutive years.

Green never got the district to full accreditation, despite struggling to do so. When he left, he told The Star, “Being unaccredited is a death sentence.”

The state standard on attendance requires 90 percent of students to be in school 90 percent of the time. But a district can get some points if it reaches 80 percent.

“The attendance records that were changed allowed the district to score over that 80 percent threshold, when in fact the records indicate that attendance fell just short of that mark,” Bedell said.

With attendance data allegedly altered by the previous administration, the district in 2016 received what was then its highest performance score ever, putting it in full accreditation range.

The following year the district failed to score at accreditation level. Bedell attributed the low score, in part, to the district’s inability to meet attendance requirements. “I haven’t hit 80 percent on attendance since I’ve been here,” Bedell said.

Kansas City deals with a large population of poor students who, because of family circumstances, move frequently during the school year. The district has one of the highest student mobility rates in the state, which Bedell said makes hitting the 90/90 attendance mark a huge challenge.

A year ago, KCPS celebrated with the community after getting an overall 82.9 percent score, or 99.5 points out of a possible 120, its highest marks ever on the annual performance review.

Still, the district failed to meet the state standard on attendance, scoring below 80 percent. Bedell said then the district hired a person to focus on attendance.

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Bedell said the district has taken several steps to ensure the manipulation never happens again, including better staff training and controls of the district’s student information system regarding marking attendance. The data manipulation will not hurt the district’s future performance scores, Bedell said.

“What happened happened. But I don’t want my staff to be discouraged for something they had nothing to do with,” Bedell said.

“All I can do is continue to be the Mark Bedell that this district hired. I have always revealed the good, the bad and the ugly. But I feel good that we have moved the needle. We are going to continue to keep moving forward.”

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