As the shuttered Hope Academy in Kansas City faces a lawsuit from the state, a former employee is speaking out.
John Shuchart helped start Hope Academy in 2009. He worked there for close to two years of its nearly five-year run. "The losers in all of this are the kids," Shuchart said. "Unfortunately, Hope Academy now is a black eye and it shouldn't be. The concept makes sense but it wasn't done correctly." In his opinion, the people who ran the school are the ones at fault.
Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster, the State Board of Education and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education agree. Friday, they filed a lawsuit in Jackson County Circuit Court against the school and two former employees for refusing to return $3.7 million it was overpaid after an audit found inflated attendance numbers. In a statement, Koster said Hope Academy, "failed to live up to its promises in educating the children in its school." The suit also demands "any relief that is just is proper."
Dana Cutler, the attorney for Hope Academy, said the board actually requested the audit that was completed in November 2013, arguing the additional funds went directly into buildings and renovations. Cutler declined to comment because her clients hadn't yet received the lawsuit.
The suit said the school reported a 97.9 percent attendance rate. Shuchard added, "When I was there the attendance in my opinion averaged 30 to 40 percent." The inflated attendance boosted the school's budget because charter schools, like traditional public schools, receive state funding based on student enrollment and attendance. An earlier state audit also found students received credit for classes in which they weren't participating and for unapproved activities outside of the classroom, such as grocery shopping, house cleaning and dog walking.
The school, whose mission was helping dropouts and students at risk of dropping out, operated from 2009 to 2014. With its academic performance among the lowest in the state, it already had been placed on probation by its sponsor, the University of Missouri-Kansas City, when the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education conducted a surprise visit in the fall of 2013.
Administrators and some staff were immediately placed on leave, and the state auditor's office began its investigation. The audit found that in the two years before the school closed, it was overpaid $4.3 million. The problems led the state to withhold its final financial payments to the school, reducing the amount that was overpaid to $3.74 million. The lawsuit said that attendance data for previous years also was high but that there weren't adequate records to estimate an overpayment.
The lawsuit said the school's leadership used the overpayments to help purchase two buildings but later defaulted on the loans. Shuchart says the first campus had 250 computers, more than enough to serve the students enrolled.
Charter schools sometimes keep money in their coffers to cover the cost of closure activities. But the suit said the money should go toward educating students in Kansas City. Shuchart emphasized, "The need is still there. There's so many kids that deserve a second chance."
The school had about $374,000 on hand as of July. Cutler tells 41 Action News that number is now closer to about $200,000.
Cutler said the board of Hope Academy plans to meet on Wednesday.
Dia Wall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.