No more questions will be answered about the $159,000 landmark investigation into grade changing at several high schools that wrapped up earlier this month, a Shelby County Schools spokeswoman told Chalkbeat.
“Please see below the answers to your questions and also be advised that this will be the last media inquiry we will respond [to] regarding this investigation,” Natalia Powers said in her Sept. 24 email.
Refusing to answer questions about an issue that has plagued the district for two years is a departure from a previous examination of grade changing. The district released hundreds of pages of sensitive information related to a similar investigation into Trezevant High, the school where grade changing was first discovered two years ago.
Chalkbeat submitted to the district a written request for a list of 11 schools investigated by an accounting firm in accordance with the state open records law, which determines what documents and other information government agencies are required to release to the public.
In a separate request, Chalkbeat also asked for a list of the 668 “high-risk” grade changes the firm found, including which schools they occurred in, when the grades were inputted and changed, what the grades were before and after the change, and who made the changes.
Both requests were denied by the district, which said “audit working papers” were exempt from public release. But in a presentation to the school board earlier in September, the auditing firm conducting the investigation, Dixon Hughes Goodman, said it was not an audit.
Lucian Pera, a lawyer and president of the board for Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, said the part of the open records law the district cited refers to financial audits. Even if this investigation did fall under that category, the law doesn’t mean Shelby County Schools can’t release the information — just that they are not required to release it.
“Hiring a fine outside accounting firm to conduct a review sounds to me as a citizen like a great idea, but refusing to release information about that work is terrible for accountability and transparency,” said Pera, who is a lawyer at Adams and Reese LLP.
Investigators said they stopped the probe because forms used to track grade changes on transcripts were missing in nearly all cases.
Missing forms did not hinder the investigation at Trezevant High in 2016 when a principal noticed discrepancies between report cards and transcripts. The missing forms also did not stop an investigation at Hamilton High School, which showed inappropriate changes to report cards. Neither investigation included fraudulent grade changes on transcripts, but employees were fired or demoted at both schools.
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson and the board did not challenge the firm’s conclusion and instead shifted focus to preventing such gaps from occurring again. District leaders also cited the high cost of continuing the investigation.
Sarah Carpenter, the executive director for parent advocacy group Memphis Lift, said there’s more work to be done, and students and their families want more answers about what actually happened.
“We don’t tackle stuff head on. We sweep it under the rug,” she told Chalkbeat. “The investigation should be ongoing.”
She believes the district could do a better job of supporting students who might have had grades changed if officials knew what went wrong. The changes could affect students who weren’t as well prepared to graduate as their grades showed.
“We believe if you don’t educate our kids when they go to school, it’s criminal,” Carpenter said. “You’re playing with kids’ lives. They can’t be productive because they don’t know how to be productive.”
And though parent Tracy O’Connor appreciates the district’s focus on prevention, there’s still more she wants to know.
“I am also concerned and angry about the effect this has on both the students involved and by extension all students. How many students were cheated out of a proper education and will suffer from that deficit their entire lives?” she told Chalkbeat.
The case is still under investigation by the state. Previously, Hopson gave the case to the Shelby County assistant attorney general’s office, which in turn gave the case to the state comptroller’s office.