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St. Louis College Prep

St. Louis College Prep in south city closed at the end of the 2018-2019 school year.

Updated at 6 p.m.

ST. LOUIS — Fraudulent attendance records spurred at least $1.4 million in state overpayments to the now-closed St. Louis College Prep Charter School, a state audit disclosed Tuesday.

The report issued by State Auditor Nicole Galloway also turned up thousands of dollars in questionable purchases by school personnel. That included about $200 in items shipped by Amazon to the home of the school’s former executive director, Michael Malone.

Galloway said Malone attempted to cover up “the fact that the school was mismanaged and suffering financially.”

“Classroom funding across the state is already stretched so thin,” Galloway said. “Students and families deserved better.”

The audit found that attendance data reported to the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education was significantly overstated for at least three school years and in some years was greater than the school’s enrollment.

Galloway said her office got involved after the state agency notified her that Malone had admitted to intentionally misreporting attendance for the 2017-18 school year.

During the audit, she said, her office issued a subpoena to Malone to compel his testimony and to require him to produce records and documents.

She said Malone pleaded the Fifth Amendment regarding questions on attendance data and procedures and credit card purchases.

Malone’s attorney did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday. 

The audit also said there was not enough supporting documentation for purchases totaling $13,916 by school personnel, including food, hotel stays, a vacation package and several Amazon purchases.

The audit said employees in many cases submitted a credit card charge slip or credit card statement but no invoice. Without actual invoices, the audit said, it can’t be determined whether purchases were of legitimate school-related items or personal items.

Regarding attendance data, the $1.4 million in overpayments totaled by the audit were for the 2016-17, 2017-18 and 2018-19 school years. 

The audit found that the school inflated attendance figures by improperly claiming remedial and summer school hours. The school also inflated individual student attendance hours, the audit found.

The audit began after an internal review uncovered the artificially boosted attendance records. The internal review said the potential total overpayments,  going back as far as 2011-12, could have reached $2.36 million. 

The board of the former school told auditors “there will not be any funds remaining to return” to the state.

Galloway, a candidate for the Democratic nomination for governor next year, said she has referred the audit findings to Attorney General Eric Schmitt and state education officials “for review and coordination.”

St. Louis College Prep, at 1224 Grattan Street on the near south side, closed earlier this year after Galloway opened her investigation. Malone resigned last November.

The school opened in 2011 as South City Preparatory Academy and changed its name to St. Louis College Prep in 2016 after it moved from South Grand Boulevard to the Grattan location.

The school surrendered its charter earlier this year after the University of Missouri at St. Louis dropped its sponsorship of the facility.

Charter schools are free and open to students living inside the St. Louis city school district’s boundaries. They operate under a separate board, while being held to state performance standards.

Doug Thaman, executive director of the Missouri Charter Public School Association, said the falsification of data was wrong and “those involved should be held accountable.”

He said when a traditional school district violates the public trust, it isn’t a reflection on all districts.

Similarly, he said, “when one charter school violates the public’s trust, it should not reflect on the majority of charter schools who follow the rules, practice sound fiscal management and … account for every dollar.”

Robbyn Wahby, executive director of the state Charter Public School Commission, said she’s disappointed about what happened at this school but that inflating attendance figures also has occurred in school districts on occasion.

“All public schools will learn from this thing,” she added.