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Transfer program undergoing revision for students from newly-accredited school districts

Mehlville High School students stream past a bus from Riverview Gardens School District that carries transfer students who live in Riverview Gardens to classes each day in Mehlville after the final class bell Friday, Feb. 10, 2017. With Riverview Gardens and St. Louis school districts regaining state accreditation administrators at area districts say they plan modifications to the program that allows students from unaccredited districts to study in nearby districts that have full accreditation. Photo by Sid Hastings

An attorney with the law firm that regularly represents Riverview Gardens School District said his investigation found that the district did not intentionally falsify attendance data to improve its state accreditation status, according to a copy of the investigation report obtained by the Post-Dispatch.

But a separate external audit found that school staff members who changed some attendance records provided no documentation as to why the changes were made, as district policy requires. The audit, which was completed by the accounting firm KEB in December, also found that district staff incorrectly entered attendance data for online and credit recovery courses.

Online course data was cited by Superintendent Scott Spurgeon and other district officials as the main reason why the district’s attendance rate rose after the end of last school year. The district says it waits to add attendance data for online courses until after students complete the course.

The district’s overall attendance rate rose by 3 percent — enough for the district to get full points for attendance on its annual performance report from the state — after the district held “clean-up days” and added online course attendance data. Administrator emails painted a picture of a district leadership desperate to inch up attendance rates in the final weeks of the school year to meet a level that could win the district full accreditation.

John Reynolds, the Tueth Keeney lawyer who completed the internal attendance record investigation, acknowledged the external audit’s findings and said during an interview that all the incorrect online attendance records had been rectified, to the best of his knowledge. Riverview Gardens Special Administrative Board Chair Lynn Beckwith said during the same interview that since the audit, all attendance secretaries have been retrained to provide documentation for every attendance record change.

The attendance rate that the district recorded with the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has not changed since the completion of the audit or the investigation.

Riverview Gardens officials say they have now put to rest the allegations that were raised by two administrators in October. Westview Middle School Principal Danielle DeLoatch and former assistant principal Amanda Bell-Greenough had alleged in lawsuits against the district that school staff gathered for “clean-up days” after the end of the school year to change student attendance records with the intention of earning more points to become fully accredited by Missouri.

District leaders say the cleanup days were used to correct data, not falsify them.

“If you’re going to set up a scheme to kind of cook the books, so to speak, to fraudulently falsify this data, first of all it would be very challenging to do it because it’s decentralized,” Reynolds said. “But even so, why would you go through the trouble of doing that, which would require a tremendous amount of effort and sophistication?”

The lawsuits filed by the two administrators were settled in January through agreements brokered in part by other Tueth Keeney lawyers representing Riverview Gardens. DeLoatch’s settlement agreement says she will remain on leave and continue earning her $106,000 annual salary until she resigns on June 30. Bell-Greenough agreed to resign from the district on Jan. 23 and received $61,000 through the district’s insurer.

The district agreed to withdraw a statement of charges it had issued against DeLoatch and promised not to try to revoke DeLoatch’s teaching certificate.

Reynolds’ investigation began before DeLoatch and Bell-Greenough sued the district, Beckwith said. A staff member had told Beckwith at the end of last school year that staff members were changing records to improve attendance, he said. He commissioned Tueth Keeney, the district’s longtime legal counsel, to investigate.

Reynolds said he thinks he studied about 1,000 attendance record changes. Reynolds found that most of the changes that were made did not result in a student counting toward a school’s or district’s attendance rate.

Missouri students must attend school 90 percent of the time to be counted in an attendance rate.

Reynolds also interviewed staff members, including all current attendance secretaries. He said none of his interviews were conducted under oath because the principals’ lawsuits never reached the point that depositions were taken. All attendance secretaries told Reynolds that they did not intentionally “fraudulently falsify” data, according to Reynolds.

“Nobody that I talked to was willing to put their own personal freedom on the line, for what? What would any individual gain from this? Nothing,” Reynolds said.

Reynolds’ report argued several times that district staff should be trusted.

For example, the report noted that one of the administrators in charge of attendance “has substantial experience and expertise,” “assisted greatly in this investigation” and “is very well qualified.” The report also noted that the district’s attendance rate was lower in the year in question than it was the year before, and stated that “it would make little sense to engage in a pattern of fraud only to reduce the District’s attendance ratio.”