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Why did it take two years for a full accounting of an enrollment scandal at a Baltimore school? | COMMENTARY

An investigative report released by the Baltimore City Public School system last week alleged a detailed conspiracy by four administrators to cook the books at Augusta Fells Savage Institute of Visual Arts by inflating enrollment numbers, fabricating classes and passing students who hadn’t grasped the curriculum. The findings are deeply troubling — as is the two-year timeline to making them public.

A supervisor first suspected fraud in the summer of 2019, and an investigation was launched in August of that year. In the many months that followed, however, it appears students continued to be cheated out of a proper education. A Fox 45 news report in March claimed “hundreds of students” were failing at the school, with the median grade point average for one group of 120 teens a shocking 0.13.

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The school system issued a statement at the time outlining some of the steps it had taken at Augusta Fells and making the point that Fox didn’t break this news; the school system had long known about it. CEO Sonja Santelises also delivered a public apology, saying the system would “continue to work with families to get back on the path to learning.” Clearly, their efforts were inadequate, however. At that point, the investigation had been ongoing — as the school system noted — for more than a year and a half, and both the principal and assistant principal had been placed on leave. How is it possible that so many children were still falling through the cracks even as a rescue operation was underway?

Now that we finally have a fuller picture from the investigation report, the State Department of Education is considering asking the city school system to return funds that were improperly awarded to Augusta Fells for students who didn’t exist. We don’t know what’s to consider; of course, they should demand that money back. While they’re at it, they should demand a few answers.

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How was the money spent? Was this a Robin Hood scenario where desperate administrators sought to provide for a chronically underfunded school? Or a scheme to line employee pockets? Something else?

Who were the other two administrators involved? The principal has been identified as Tracy Hicks, and the assistant principal as Joy Kwesiga; The Sun was not able to reach either woman. Ms. Hicks was apparently allowed to retire this year, and both were paid while on the lengthy leave, according to Fox. It’s unclear if Ms. Kwesiga is still on the payroll; the school system said three of the administrators no longer work for BCPSS and the fourth is awaiting “administrative proceedings.”

Could the investigation — which was thorough, we’ll grant them that, with 30 staff members interviewed and every student transcript reviewed — have been conducted more quickly? How many thousands of dollars could the school system have saved in paid leave by wrapping things up earlier? How many more parents alerted to the need for intervention? Families received letters in the spring of 2020 about their child’s progress, but that was almost a year after suspicions were raised.

And where do you go from here? That’s a question not just for the Augusta Fells community, though they’re the most direct victims of the alleged plot to defraud the Department of Education of thousands of dollars of unearned funding. It’s a question for the city school system as a whole, and their overseers.

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This isn’t the first grading scandal or issue with “ghost students,” who exist only on paper for funding purposes, within the city school system. And while we’re glad that the system’s internal controls were eventually able to spot the activity, the fact that the public had to wait two years for any real detail is a significant concern.

The school system is asking parents to trust it like never before right now — with their children’s education, but also their children’s lives, as schools return to in-person education amid an ongoing pandemic. This is not the time to sweep problems under the rug or be vague about procedures and processes.

The Maryland Office of the Inspector General for Education, which began operation last year, is conducting its own investigation into the incident, and we expect this won’t be the last we hear on the subject. But we wish it weren’t the first significant accounting we’ve gotten either. Do better, Baltimore.

Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.

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