Charter schools owe millions to Texas

HOUSTON The Texas Education Agency (TEA) wants to get back as much of the money it has overpaid as possible. Of the $26 million owed, it is trying to recover about $17 million -- the rest, taxpayers may never see again.

The Texas Education Agency says the Gulf Shores Academy owes them nearly $8.5 million. It's money the TEA says was paid out based on the charter school's reported attendance numbers.

TEA spokesperson Lisa Dawn Fisher said, "They reported more kids attending school than actually attended school at that school."

It's not the first sign of trouble for Gulf Shores. The school has a history of poor student performance. The TEA is in the process of trying to revoke its charter, and so far hasn't received any of the money back.

The state says Gulf Shores is one of 93 schools which have amassed $26 million in debt. Education officials say some of that money owed is due to honest mistakes at some charter schools. At others, they say it's a matter of timing. The schools are funded based on expected attendance. They project that number based on history and if actual attendance falls short, they end up having to pay back funding the state has sent.

KIPP Incorporated Charter owes more than $220,000.

"Sometimes we're underfunded, sometimes we're overfunded," said KIPP co-founder Mike Feinberg.

Feinberg says the discrepancy is a result of the way attendance is reported for pre-K students. It's an accounting issue he says that will even out at the end of the year, nothing more.

He said, "We have to be nothing but ethical if we're going to achieve our mission and get kids to and through college, which is our single focus around here at KIPP."

Still, many schools have closed. Northwest Mathematics, Science and Language Academy owes over $1.1 million. Prepared Table Charter School was overpaid $241,000. The TEA says the 20 charter schools which have gone out of business have amassed more than $9 million in debt -- money taxpayers will likely never see again.

[Contact the TEA for a list of other charter schools with financial questions]

The TEA recently launched a new program to better train charter school employees on school accounting procedures in an effort to reduce reporting mistakes.

Meantime, the attorney for the Gulf Shores Academy says its school leaders never over-inflated its attendance figures.

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