Posted: Sep 20, 2012 9:53 PM
Updated: Sep 21, 2012 9:08 AM
WESLACO - A Rio Grande Valley charter school has become the focus of a state investigation.
State officials said IRRA Charter School got nearly $900,000 more than it should have received.
CHANNEL 5 NEWS learned IRRA changed attendance reports. They marked students present even when they didn't show up for class. And they got the money for it.
Just like public schools, charter schools get funding based on attendance. Every student represents thousands of dollars.
A student from IRRA's Mission center spoke with CHANNEL 5 NEWS before her graduation.
"I was just trying to make it easier for myself," Sabrina Deckard said.
Deckard said she needed just two classes in her last semester to graduate. She said that wasn't good enough for her principal.
"When I asked him why, he said the school wouldn't be making money off me ... wouldn't be benefiting off of me," she said.
IRRA receives an average of $9,000 for every student who attends a full day of classes. Part-time students, like Deckard, mean half that amount.
Deckard said the principal wanted the full amount. So they made a deal.
"It's like if I attend the whole day, but I really didn't," she said.
A review of Deckard's schedule and attendance records shows she was marked present for class periods not listed in her final schedule.
State records show that Deckard was a full-time student for the entire school year. But as mentioned before, she wasn't.
"So he's getting money off of me, because supposedly I'm attending those classes," she said.
CHANNEL 5 NEWS went to her principal for answers.
"I've been told to not comment on anything ... only if it's authorized by central," he said.
IRRA officials would not allow the principal to speak with CHANNEL 5 NEWS.
"The right thing to do is to bring it to the people that can address it. You can't address it," IRRA Assistant Superintendent Noe Sauceda said.
A Texas Education Agency investigation found that IRRA inflated attendance numbers in 2009 and 2010. Students were marked present even when they were absent.
"I would say that data quality was probably one of the significant issues," Sauceda said.
Sauceda is part of a new administration that took over during the state investigation.
"Things are changing," he said.
The school's superintendent, Beto Gonzalez, applauded the school's reputation at this year's graduation.
"We are the number one charter school," he said.
Sauceda said the problems have been fixed.
"We don't have an option. We must comply with state regulations and so we've given them an assurance that this new administration is doing exactly that," he said.
"That was a lie. There was no change at all," Eleazar Saenz said. He taught science at IRRA for three years. He taught Deckard.
Saenz said Deckard was one of several students marked present but didn't show up to class.
"That's just what happened at IRRA," he said.
CHANNEL 5 NEWS found dozens of discrepancies.
"This is fraud," Saenz said. He started asking questions.
"It was just too much. You add them all up and that's a lot of money the school is getting for false information," he said.
IRRA fired Saenz on May 24 for refusing to receive letters of concern regarding his performance, inappropriate discipline and interaction with students and failure to meet IRRA's standards for teachers.
He was fired just two weeks after his annual teacher evaluation.
"This tells me I was, basically, doing my job," he said of the evaluation.
The evaluation shows Saenz exceeded expectations.
"I think I was fired for refusing to mark students present who were actually absent," he said.
"There are staff that are no longer with us or may not be with us ... they're going to want someone to blame," Sauceda said.
Sauceda said administrators never heard Saenz's or Deckard's allegations.
"Out of fairness we need to know what the complaint is ... and there hasn't been a complaint regarding what you're saying ... nothing," he said.
Gonzalez, the school's superintendent, resigned a month after graduation for what IRRA called personal reasons.
IRRA this year changed its name to Ignite Public Schools. State investigators are looking at the school campuses to make sure attendance records are not being changed. The most recent TEA report states school administrators are cooperating.