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DESE will look at potential irregularities in attendance at Ferguson-Florissant

Art McCoy
File copy | Ferguson-Florissant website

This article originally appeared in the St. Louis Beacon. - Missouri school officials say they are investigating "potential irregularities in mandatory reporting including district attendance" in the Ferguson-Florissant school district.

Information from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education was released following word from the district's school board that it had “serious” new information about suspended Superintendent Art McCoy that it is referring to state education officials.

A spokeswoman for DESE said Tuesday that the department will be working with the school district to conduct "an internal data review to determine what, if any, problems exist and what remedy, if any, needs to occur.   We will be working as quickly as possible."

Discrepancies in attendance figures can affect how much money school districts receive from the state, since funding depends on how many students attend class each day. Recently, the St. Louis Public Schools said they would return $145,000 to the state because of attendance fraud at a downtown schoolin 2009 and 2010.

A letter signed by Paul Morris, president of the school board in the north St. Louis County district, released Monday, had no details on what kind of information had been referred to the DESE or whether the board had the information before it voted on Nov. 6 to place McCoy on indefinite administrative leave with pay.

A district spokeswoman said the serious information did not involve mistreatment of children or anything that directly involves specific students. She said Tuesday that the issue involved is civil, not criminal, and that the board had not learned of the information until after its meeting last Wednesday, when many speakers came out in support of McCoy. 

She said the information required that the board report it to DESE, which it did on Monday following its closed meeting on Sunday.

The one-paragraph statement from DESE said:

"The department has been notified by the Ferguson-Florissant Board of Education of potential irregularities in mandatory reporting including district attendance. The department will be reviewing this data and working with the school district to resolve any issues.”

The letter from the district, released Monday afternoon, said: "In the interest of keeping you informed of continuing developments related to the Board of Education’s action regarding superintendent Dr. Art McCoy, we would like to share some new information.

“The board recently received information serious enough to require us by law to notify the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE). The state Department of Education (DESE) coordinates and regulates K-12 education. Upon receiving the information, DESE has notified us that they will be conducting an investigation.

“This situation remains a personnel matter and is subject to board policy and state law prohibiting disclosure of details. We will share more information, if possible, from DESE when it becomes available.

“We understand how difficult this is for our district community, and we want to emphasize that all of our decisions are being made with great care and with the best interests of our students in mind.”

Since McCoy’s leave was announced, supporters have demanded his reinstatement, sought more information and railed against the board, which voted 6-1 to place him on leave. McCoy himself has declined to comment on the situation.

The initial letter from the board, signed by Morris and released on Nov. 7, had said that the administrative leave for McCoy "reflects differences in focus and philosophy between the board and superintendent and is not an indication of wrongdoing."

The district spokeswoman, Jana Shortt, said in an email this morning:

"The decision to place any employee on administrative leave is not an indication of wrongdoing. It means that time and space were needed to work through areas of concern. Administrative leave is a personnel action that allows there to be the time and space needed to more closely examine areas of concern.

"The phrasing used in the announcement letting the public know of the board's action should have been more clear."

At a meeting last week lasting nearly four hours, dozens of people said that McCoy should be restored to his job and that members of the board should either resign from their positions or be challenged when their terms are up.

Many of the complaints about treatment of McCoy brought up race, though Morris said that neither race nor McCoy’s active recruitment of transfer students from Riverview Gardens and Normandy played a role in the board’s decision. McCoy is black, as are 78 percent of the district’s students; all seven members of the district’s board are white.

The Ferguson-Florissant school board held a special closed meeting Sunday afternoon to discuss legal and personnel matters.

A request for information about the board meeting where McCoy was placed on leave gave little detail about the discussion that took place. Preliminary minutes of that meeting said only that “a presentation was made by Dr. McCoy responding to his evaluation," followed by board discussion regarding his evaluation and performance. 

Then a roll call vote was taken on whether to suspend McCoy with pay. The only member of the board to vote against McCoy’s leave was Paul Schroeder.

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.