Will low test scores, shaky financial situation spell the end for Derrick Thomas Academy?

KANSAS CITY, Mo. - A new Missouri law requiring more accountability from charter schools takes effect in August, but is it already too late for a school bearing the name of one of Kansas City's most beloved athletes?

A 41 Action News investigation found that low academic scores and poorly-managed money have created an uncertain future for Derrick Thomas Academy.

Because of large staff turnover, the charter school has been working to hire teachers and administrators over the summer, but remains unsure if the upcoming school year will be its last.

"This was one of his dreams"

Thomas was one of the biggest names on the Kansas City sports scene when he died in 2000. The Chiefs defensive superstar had been paralyzed in a car wreck and developed a massive blood clot.

Prior to his death, Thomas was already known for his work with the Third and Long Foundation , which he founded in 1990.

Two years later, Thomas' legacy also continued in the classroom.

When the Derrick Thomas Academy (DTA) opened a decade ago at 201 E. Armour Blvd, there were former and current Chiefs in attendance, and big hopes about what the building could do for students in Kansas City.

"This is something he always wanted," said Thomas' mother, Edith Morgan, during a 2002 interview with 41 Action News. "This was one of his dreams and now that his dream is really coming true, I am so excited about it."

Letter issues bleak warning

But the school built in number 58's honor is on shaky ground, an uncertain future all captured in a letter obtained by 41 Action News.

Click here to read the entire letter

In early April, Jerry Cooper sent a strongly-worded warning to administrators and board leaders at DTA. Cooper is the director of the UMKC Charter School Center, which sponsors DTA.

Every charter school needs a sponsor to operate. Cooper says UMKC's role is to hold schools academically and financially accountable, along with providing resources and consultation.

The letter delivered a harsh wakeup call to DTA. It said the school was meeting the criteria for being "financially stressed" by operating with a deficit of more than $600,000.

Cooper listed several violations of Missouri charter school laws, including breaking a contract with the DTA's management company ( EdisonLearning ) without sponsor approval.

"That was a big issue," Cooper told 41 Action News. "It has a big financial impact. It's going to cost a monthly payment for the next four years."

The letter also said the school was on academic probation for low state assessment results and was out of compliance with several federal and state special education requirements.

Cooper issued a final warning to DTA leaders, who had not provided requested documentation to UMKC, despite repeated inquiries.

"Failure to provide the required budget and educational plan will result in the non-renewal of the charter for Derrick Thomas Academy," the letter said.

That scenario meant DTA would close at the end of the upcoming school year (June, 2013).

"We really wanted to get their attention and we felt like we only had so much time to correct this," Cooper said.

Exodus of staff members

But the letter from UMKC did not just get the attention of school administrators. Copies of the letter also circulated through the building to teachers and other staff members.

People panicked. A number of them decided to leave the school in pursuit of other jobs.

According to Cooper, up to 45 employees left the school, including the elementary and secondary principals.

Board president Betty Brown disputes that number, saying it is closer to 20 employees. Regardless, she agrees school leaders could have been more transparent in addressing the UMKC letter instead of allowing rumors to run rampant.

"There is enough blame to go around for everybody," Brown said.

Brown, who has been a board member since the school opened, recently took on the role of board president. She has been in frequent communication with UMKC officials, hoping to lead a fourth-quarter rally for DTA.

What happened to the money?

Last August, DTA leaders sent a letter to parents in response to a legal decision. The court battle involved a funding dispute between Kansas City Public Schools and charter schools in Kansas City.

Charter schools had argued they were entitled to the same taxpayer money provided to KCPS from a desegregation bond. However, a judge ruled that charters schools had to pay back desegregation money it received from April 2005 to June 2006.

In the case of DTA, that amount was about $800,000.

The letter to parents said, "DTA was smart and did not spend one penny of the $800,000 we received. We wanted to hold on to that money until all the legal disputes were resolved. If we had to write a check for that amount, we could do so today."

At the time, Brown said that was a true statement. However, a short time later, DTA started dipping into those funds for expenses.

"We spent the money paying bills," she said.

Some of those bills

had piled up from other questionable decisions, like breaking the contract with the management company without a repayment plan.

The August letter also assured parents, "DTA is in good financial standing."

But just a few months later, DTA's sponsor said it was meeting the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) criteria as a "financially stressed" district.

Brown said there is a new team in place with a financial playbook to get DTA out of debt. Cooper added that UMKC has also provided a lot of financial consultation resources over the past few months.

DTA is also back in line with DESE requirements for special education, Cooper said.

Will the school survive?

"I don't have a crystal ball," Cooper said. "I know they have to meet all our standards. I feel better now than when I wrote that letter back in April."

Test scores could make or break future of school

The most important of those standards is state test scores that will arrive later this summer. It is a crucial report card that will likely determine if Derrick Thomas' legacy will live on in these hallways.

According to Cooper, the largest area of concern is in Communication Arts in grades 3-5.

After reviewing test scores, UMKC will be faced with a decision in late August: renew DTA for a five-year contract or physically close the school in the summer of 2013. Currently, UMKC sponsors 11 charter schools.

According to DESE, four other Kansas City charter schools have closed over the past five years: Academy of Kansas City, Don Bosco Education Center, Renaissance Academy of Environmental Science and Math, and Urban Community Leadership Academy.

It is too early to tell how some of the turmoil will affect enrollment when the school year begins. However, 41 Action News spoke to a parent who has removed her three children from the school. The parent, who did not wish to be named, said her kids had started attending the school in 2006.

If the school is forced to close, it would mean up to 900 kids looking for new districts.

Brown is remaining optimistic that scores will show the needed improvement to keep the doors open at DTA.

"I believe in my heart there is a person upstairs that is talking to God," she said with a smile.

Ryan Kath can be reached at ryan.kath@kshb.com. You can follow him on Twitter or connect with him on Facebook.

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