KC charter school seeks donations to pay salaries

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — A recently closed Kansas City charter school is asking for donations to help pay teachers who otherwise could lose three months of income.

Don Bosco Charter High School was unable to make payroll Thursday after the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education accused the school of failing to follow the rules for spending federal money and withheld about $200,000 over the past two months.

Don Bosco Centers, the charity that started the school, said that the school can’t pay teacher and staff salaries for the rest of June, July and August without the money.

“That’s why the school is asking for your help,” Nick Scielzo, the centers’ president, said in an email. “The Charter High School teachers and staff can’t wait for the resolution with DESE. They worked hard educating and helping Charter High School students overcome issues with homelessness, behavioral problems, youth parenthood, and the violence they experienced in their everyday lives. The school’s teachers and staff deserve to be paid.”

Don Bosco opened more than a decade ago to serve students at risk of dropping out. As a charter school, it receives public funding but is freed from many rules and regulations that bind traditional public schools. However, the charter’s board said in April that the school had run at a deficit for several years, and the financial strain had become too great to continue.

Academic performance concerns, including poor scores on state tests, and irregular and low enrollment patterns also were cited in the decision. Only about 125 of Don Bosco’s 160 students were showing up on a typical day, and the state’s formula for distributing money to schools takes attendance into account.

But a review conducted after the school announced it was closing determined that officials had improperly spent more than $256,000 in federal Title I money, which is allocated for serving students from low-income families. The money is supposed to be used to supplement instruction, but Don Bosco Charter High School spent it on such things as salaries and benefits for core staff, said Ron Lankford, the state deputy commissioner of education.

Documentation the school later submitted reduced the amount owed by about $40,000, and the state thinks another $17,000 could be subtracted from the total.

Normally, the state could recoup the money more gradually by withholding it from future payments. But Lankford said that with the school closing, the options are limited. Hypothetically, the legislature could hold a special session and allocate extra money to the school. The school also could seek forgiveness from the federal government, but Lankford said such a request is unlikely to be granted.

Several lawmakers have made inquiries.

“Everybody, the department included, certainly the elected officials, are sensitive to the fact that there are people whose compensation is in question,” Lankford said. “If they don’t get paid, no one likes that especially in today’s economic times.”

The school’s sponsor, the University of Central Missouri, said the issues were with how the paperwork was filled out.

“It’s not malicious,” said Doug Thomas, assistant director of the Warrensburg college’s charter school office. “It was money spent on teachers and instructional equipment and support services for those kids.”

He said efforts to do right by the teachers continue.

“The teachers have a contract with the school and have fulfilled their obligation so I believe everyone will be looking at angles to see if they can get those obligations met,” Thomas said.

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