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Inquiry is launched into Arlington Heights High's attendance records

FORT WORTH -- State officials and the Fort Worth school district are investigating reports that administrators at Arlington Heights High School falsified student attendance records to improve the school's academic rating.

Some students were allowed to make up missed classes -- and eventually graduate -- by doing chores around the school and working at concession stands, according to the reports.

A district investigation began in May. And this week, the Texas Education Agency received a complaint from a former assistant principal at Arlington Heights that records were altered and that the campus had a hostile work environment, TEA spokeswoman Debbie Graves Ratcliffe said.

TEA auditors have been assigned to the case, she said.

If the complaints are substantiated, the school's academic rating could be affected and the district might have to repay state funds that were sent based on attendance rates, Ratcliffe said. If a certified educator was involved in the matter, sanctions could be placed on that person's state licenses.

District Superintendent Melody Johnson said Wednesday that she could not discuss the details of the case. She said she hopes preliminary findings will be made before school starts Aug. 23 so appropriate action can be taken.

"I will not tolerate anything like this for a single second," Johnson said. "As superintendent, I only request that public judgments be withheld prior to the completion of all investigations of the facts and allow due process to prevail for all individuals involved."

Details of the complaints against administrators and other concerns about the school were first reported Wednesday in the Fort Worth Weekly. "If the allegations are found to be true, individuals should be punished to the fullest extent possible," Trustee Norm Robbins said.

Falsified records?

Larry Shaw, executive director of the United Educators Association, which represents school employees, told the Star-Telegram that some teachers at Arlington Heights have said that nearly two dozen students graduated in June after their attendance records were altered.

The teachers were upset that some students were able to do chores at Heights and work at concession stands during school events, Shaw said.

"How can you determine that academic standards have been met if kids are working in the concession stand and cleaning offices?" Shaw said.

The state outlines how students can make up absences, some of which is at the principal's discretion, but it must be instructional and does not include doing chores, Ratcliffe said.

Arlington Heights had the state's lowest academic rating, "unacceptable," in 2009 because of a low completion rate, which calculates the number of students who graduate on time or continue school. The school received an academically acceptable rating for 2010.

Various administrators from Heights have been reassigned since the investigation began.

An assistant principal who alerted district officials to the situation was initially reassigned to the International Newcomer Academy and then reassigned to Western Hills High School after he filed a grievance, Shaw said. The UEA represented the man in his grievance.

Shaw said the man thought he was being punished and is trying to get his job back at Heights.

Neta Alexander was the principal at Heights during the time in question and was reassigned to be principal at Paschal High School. She did not return calls seeking comment.

The district's Office of Professional Standards is investigating. But Shaw said the investigation has been hindered by the interference of central administrators. He said the district should hire an outside investigator or have the Office of Professional Standards staff report to a different department within the district. "A lot of this system is the fox watching the henhouse," Shaw said.

Johnson said the professional standards office has had no interference from administrators and reports only to the district's new chief of administration, Sylvia Reyna.

Principal's transfer at issue

School trustees were briefed about the situation in a closed session at Tuesday night's board meeting.

Trustee Ann Sutherland, who asked for the briefing, said she was upset that administrative changes that occurred in June -- including people involved in the investigation -- were made without the board being told the extent of the concerns at Arlington Heights. "I believe management has served us poorly by keeping us in the dark on these appointments," she said.

Board members must approve personnel promotions, but lateral moves can be made by the administration without approval.

Trustee Juan Rangel called for an outside investigation. Rangel, whose district includes Paschal, is also concerned that Alexander was moved to another school before the investigation was complete. "I'm not passing judgment, and I don't know what's happened," Rangel said. "But I'd like people to be clear from all that -- that any and all problems are cleared before they move on to another school. That's only to be fair to the students and the school."

Johnson said she had informed board members through a letter several weeks ago that there was an issue at Heights. She said she is limited in what she can tell trustees to protect the rights of employees.

The board is expected to be an impartial panel when hearing grievance cases, she said.

"This is not a straightforward case, and we need to protect the grievance process," Johnson said.

When Alexander was reassigned, there was no substantiated reason not to do so, Johnson said. "I had absolutely no reason to question that decision," she said.

Eva-Marie Ayala,

817-390-7700

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