Editor's note: This report has been updated to include information from TEA auditor Justin Jons, received Wednesday morning.
FORT WORTH -- State officials found that the Fort Worth school district over-reported attendance at Arlington Heights High School last year, which will result in a loss of $18,000 for the school.
The Texas Education Agency auditor said he found no evidence of fraud, only lack of documentation for 255 who were classified as being in school but not in class, mostly because of campuswide testing during May 17-21, 2010.
In an e-mail Wednesday morning, auditor Justin Jons wrote that he "adjusted these students based on lack of documentation, not because I saw widespread attendance-changing for no reason."
Jons further noted that had he found that to be an issue, he would have referred the case to the TEA for further investigation.
District officials insist that the students were present for the days in question and deemed it "suspicious" that documentation to support it is missing.
They noted the May days in question were when many students were taking state exams or other tests, such as Advanced Placement. Those who were not being tested were sent to the auditorium, gym or elsewhere.
The missing documentation would show that the students were on campus but not in their classrooms when attendance was recorded during the second period, according to Sylvia Reyna, Fort Worth's chief of administration. Clerks would not have marked attendance records to show that the students were present unless they had such documentation, she said.
"The audit showed that we had a process in place for accounting for students and that process was consistently followed on all other days, but it's suspicious that we can't find the documentation for those specific testing days," Reyna said.
The students in question were counted as present for the rest of the day in subsequent classes they attended, she said. "We know that they were present, but we can't show it," Reyna said.
However, Reyna also said the methods of keeping track of students who were on campus but not in class varied from school to school. She said officials are now implementing a uniform policy districtwide.
Some worry, though, that the TEA findings reflect a much larger record-keeping problem in the district. The state began its investigation after concerns arose last year about Arlington Heights, including allegations of attendance fraud. A federal civil-rights investigation of the treatment of minority students at the school is also ongoing.
Former Assistant Principal Joseph Palazzolo, who filed a whistle-blower suit against the district related to the matter, reported the attendance concerns to the TEA.
"This just shows that parents can't trust the school district when it comes to student data," said Palazzolo's attorney, Jason Smith.
The district's own investigation found that no student graduated as a result of fraudulent attendance records. However, district investigators did note several times throughout their report, issued in October, that the school had shoddy record-keeping procedures, often at odds with district or state policies. Reyna said she doesn't think the missing documentation was a result of poor record-keeping.
Trustee Ann Sutherland said she is concerned that the TEA report found so many discrepancies.
"I am concerned that our office also reviewed the allegations that Palazzolo made about our attendance reporting and concluded that there was no problem," she said. "At a minimum, the district needs to be focused on monitoring this better."
The Rev. Kyev Tatum, who asked the Education Department to investigate civil-rights concerns at Arlington Heights, wants the TEA to do a larger audit of the district's attendance records.
He said he hopes that federal civil-rights investigators will also look at the attendance records.
"We know these allegations are out there," Tatum said. "In an effort to clear them up, we want an outside agency to come in and look at them. Arlington Heights left so many questions unanswered."
Reyna said no other attendance complaints have been made to district officials. She also noted that the district has adjusted procedures and record-keeping as a result of the Arlington Heights investigation.
Trustee Judy Needham, who represents the Heights area, also said the district has addressed issues flagged in the audit.
"The district has a corrective action that it put in place in all schools that TEA approved," Needham said. "We're getting it fixed, and I don't think it's a larger problem."
Eva-Marie Ayala, 817-390-7700