KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Two years ago, the state of Missouri took a local school to court, accusing them of stealing nearly $4 million in taxpayer money.
Now, FOX4 Problem Solvers has learned that the 2016 lawsuit filed by the Attorney General against the Kansas City charter school was secretly settled last fall as then-Attorney General Josh Hawley entered the final months of his campaign for U.S. Senate.
The school, Hope Academy, had been sued by the Attorney General’s Office for vastly overstating its attendance to qualify for $3.7 million extra in state education funds.
Named in the suit was Superintendent Vonnelle Middleton and her assistant Lisa Sowell, who maintained attendance records and reported them to the state.
Neither Middleton nor Sowell admitted guilt. However, Middleton agreed to pay about $28,000 to the state to settle claims against her and was banned from ever affiliating with any charter school ever again.
Under both women’s watch, Hope Academy claimed a 97 percent attendance rate. The actual attendance discovered during unannounced visits by the Missouri Department of Education was less than 30 percent.
According to the lawsuit, Hope Academy used the extra millions it received in state money to buy and remodel buildings that mostly sat empty.
So how much did the state of Missouri ever recover from the Hope Academy debacle? Since the terms of the settlement were private, FOX4 Problem Solvers had to file an open records request to find out.
Besides the $28,000 Middleton agreed to pay, the state recouped another $204,000 sitting in the school’s bank account – or just 6 percent of the $3.7 million it was unjustly paid.
“We are not talking about an error, we are talking about large numbers,” said Rabbi Paul Silbersher, one of the founders of the school and an outspoken critic of Middleton.
Silbersher was shocked to learn the case was settled and that the terms were kept secret.
“My thoughts are you only seal something if you are trying to conceal and that the information might show a bad light on someone or some entity. Otherwise why seal it? This is public money. Public trust," he said.
Insiders said the state most likely settled the lawsuit because it couldn’t prove Middleton and Sowell personally benefited from the fraud.
But John Shuchart, a former board member, said the two women did benefit. He said their raises were tied to the school’s performance, including attendance.
“They enriched themselves by having a successful school and then getting raises in their compensation,” Shuchart said. “Some people's raises ended up being 50 percent over 3-4 years.”
Shuchart said Middleton’s beginning pay was $80,000. By the time the state shut the school down four years later, Middleton’s salary had climbed to $120,000.
The real losers, Shuchart said, are the students.
Hope Academy was designed to be a beacon of hope for former high school drop outs. Instead, it became a poster child on how not to run a school.
The Attorney General’s Office said the case was settled because no insurance policy existed that would have allowed the state to recoup the millions lost in taxpayer money. Plus, the court allowed Middleton and Sowell to use the school’s bank account to pay their attorneys.
Dragging the case out would have ultimately meant the state would have recovered less money for taxpayers. As for why the terms of the settlement were kept secret, Problem Solvers never got an answer.