Former KIPP St. Louis principal denies attendance fraud

ST. LOUIS — The former principal of a KIPP charter school who was fired in March denies claims she falsified attendance records, which the state uses to calculate school funding.

Jessica Pachak was in her fifth year as principal of KIPP Inspire Academy in north St. Louis with 423 students in grades five through eight. KIPP officials say Pachak marked students “present” after parents confirmed they were absent 225 times during the 2023-24 school year, according to emails obtained by the Post-Dispatch.

“I didn’t do what KIPP was accusing me of. I’m hopeful the truth will also come to light,” Pachak said Friday. “Any child I changed was present at school, and I can prove it.”

The inaccurate attendance records were discovered in late February through an internal audit, according to a statement from Kelly Garrett, executive director of KIPP St. Louis.

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“We are taking this incident as an opportunity to strengthen our internal controls and ensure the accuracy of our attendance reporting systems across the region,” Garrett said.

Pachak said she believes her firing may be connected to KIPP leaders not wanting her to run for the Missouri House of Representatives. Soon after he was fired, Pachak filed as a Democrat to fill the vacant seat of former state representative Rasheen Aldridge, who was elected to the St. Louis District. Louis Board of Aldermen in April 2023.

Pachak will face two other contenders in the Aug. 6 primary to represent House District 78, which covers a narrow band of the city from Lafayette Square in the south to St. Louis Place in the north and includes Busch Stadium, Enterprise Center and America’s Center convention hall.

There was “a lot of discussion” at KIPP on whether an employee could run for office, but the board did not have a policy against it, Pachak said. Local board members have included civic and business leaders John Kemper, Donald Danforth, Carolyn Kindle Betz and Maxine Clark, who helped bring KIPP to St. Louis. Louis. Washington University sponsors KIPP, the largest charter system in St. Louis with 2,320 students across one high school, two middle schools and three elementary schools.

Charter schools are publicly funded but operated by appointed boards separately from St. Louis Public Schools.

Pachak said she is a “big proponent of public schools” and would bring greater accountability to public and charter schools as a state legislator with experience as an educator. Pachak, 32, is from St. Louis and has a bachelor’s degree from Cornell University and a master’s degree from Harvard. She now works as program director for Kindness Begins With Me, a local non-profit that serves immigrants and refugees.

Garrett, the KIPP executive director, told school families in March that there was “irrefutable evidence that Principal Pachak had falsified attendance records.”

The actions were “a serious breach of trust and a violation of professional conduct,” Garrett wrote in his letter announcing Pachak’s termination.

KIPP leaders said the attendance inflation was limited to Inspire middle school. The charter school system has since changed its policy so only central office administrators have access to student records, hired more data managers and will perform more audits and spot checks, Garrett said.

The false attendance numbers were corrected before KIPP had to turn the final data into the state at the end of the school year, he said.

A spokesperson for the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education confirmed that KIPP does not owe the state any funds for overpayments.

The department “will continue to monitor the situation and will consider next steps as necessary, which may include a referral to the state auditor,” said Mallory McGowin.

Stressed about attendance

Average daily attendance is a main factor in the state’s school funding formula. It’s also an ongoing challenge for KIPP, where more than half of students are chronically absent, defined as missing more than 10% of school days. KIPP St. St. Louis’ attendance rate last year was the sixth-lowest out of 561 school districts and charters in Missouri.

Pachak said he did have any incentive to improve attendance, although “it was very clear that others felt very stressed about it, at the district level.”

Just days before Pachak was fired, Garrett and other school leaders were questioned about KIPP’s low attendance rates during the March 5 meeting of the Missouri Board of Education to grant a five-year renewal of the charter.

Improving attendance and academics are “wildly important goals” at KIPP schools, Garrett told the state board.

“The way we’re going to get back to academic success and excellence is having kids in school every day,” he said.

Nearly all the students at KIPP schools are Black and qualify for free or reduced lunch, a measure of poverty. At KIPP Inspire middle school, 19% of students received out-of-school suspensions last year. On state tests, 16% of students tested proficient in English and 24% in math in 2023.

An internal investigation at the school determined any changes to student attendance from “absent” to “present” recorded by Pachak after 10 am were illegal, KIPP’s director of finance Paul Fedchak told state education officials in an email last month. Pachak wrongly added 14,891 student attendance hours between October 2023 and February. 16, when her access to attendance records was revoked, he wrote.

Pachak said the attendance procedures were the same throughout her five years at KIPP Inspire, and the changes were for students who missed the bus or had doctors’ appointments and were brought to school late.

Falsifying school attendance can lead to criminal charges for overpayment of government funds. The founder of a defunct charter school, St. Louis College Prep, was sentenced in 2021 to one year in prison and ordered to reimburse nearly $2.4 million in state funding after pleading guilty to three felony counts of wire fraud.

In the 2016-17 school year, Michael Malone reported about 10,000 extra student attendance hours, according to the US Attorney’s Office. The next year, he reported 13,255 extra hours.

In 2013, the state education department found evidence of attendance fraud in the Ferguson-Florissant School District that the district self-reported. The Missouri auditor confirmed attendance fraud at SLPS’ Patrick Henry elementary school in 2011 after a tip from a school employee.

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