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Education

Groups explore extent of ECOT 'hush money'

  • Online-Charter-School-6

    Hundreds of supporters of Ohio's largest online charter school, the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow or ECOT, participate in a rally outside the Statehouse in Columbus last year.

    ASSOCIATED PRESS

  • CTY-ECOT01

    Governor's candidate Joe Schiavoni, left, and state Board of Education member Stephanie Dodd, right, talk about the ECOT whistleblower and call for a criminal investigation of ECOT sponsor ESC Lake Erie West during a press conference at Educational Service Center on April 30, 2018.

    The Blade/Amy E. Voigt
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COLUMBUS — A pair of government watchdog groups have requested information from Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow’s Toledo-based sponsor to see how much money the now shuttered online school may have paid out to former employees to keep them quiet.

The Associated Press first reported that a would-be whistleblower, a former ECOT technology employee, notified several state officials that ECOT had used software to intentionally manipulate its attendance data after questions had already been raised by the state.

The state eventually ordered the now-shuttered online charter school to repay $79 million in per-pupil subsidies after it determined the school could not prove enough students had been logged into the system long enough to qualify as full-time students.

That former employee, laid off before the school closed, had refused to sign a non-disclosure agreement that would have prohibited him from talking disparagingly about ECOT, sponsor Educational Services Center of Lake Erie West, and other entities affiliated with the e-school.

In exchange, the former employee would have received two weeks of severance pay valued at less than $10,000, according to Sandy Theis, former executive director of the left-leaning Progress Ohio. She declined to identify the former employee, but said she had seen the proposed agreement and talked with others who had been offered such deals or signed one.

CTY-ECOT01

Governor's candidate Joe Schiavoni, left, and state Board of Education member Stephanie Dodd, right, talk about the ECOT whistleblower and call for a criminal investigation of ECOT sponsor ESC Lake Erie West during a press conference at Educational Service Center on April 30, 2018.

The Blade/Amy E. Voigt
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Steve Dyer, education policy fellow with Innovation Ohio, said the inclusion of Lake Erie West in the agreement was particularly troubling.

“The sponsor is supposed to provide oversight of the charter school industry in Ohio,” he said. “It is not meant to be in bed with the charter school industry.”

State Sen. Joe Schiavoni (D., Boardman), a candidate for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, spoke outside of ESC’s Toledo location on Monday, calling for further investigation into ECOT’s finances and the falsified records described by the whistleblower.

“They just don’t want to give the information for some reason, and common sense will tell you that something’s going on,” he said. “But we can’t just brush it under the rug and say ‘Well, you guys are closed now and you screwed people for long enough now, and you take a walk.’ It’s about making sure that we have the resources necessary in order to give kids opportunities.”

State Board of Education Member Stephanie Dodd, who is running for Lt. Governor on Mr. Schiavoni’s ticket, has been in contact with the whistleblower. A state board member for the last five years, she said the board was never made aware of the information passed onto the Ohio Department of Education, an agency she oversees.

“I think, from the state board perspective, a lot of us have been calling for more transparency at ODE and have been very supportive of the work that Joe has been doing,” she said.

ESC distanced itself from ECOT, particularly reports of the non-disclosure agreement the online school sought from the unnamed whistleblower.

“The Educational Service Center of Lake Erie West does not [as a sponsor] engage in the employment of community schools staff and does not otherwise dictate the employment decisions of any other public entity,” Apryl M. Morin, director of Lake Erie West’s Community School Center, said in an e-mail.

“The ESC is not a party to, and has no knowledge of, any severance documents between ECOT and its former staff members,” she said.

Common Cause Ohio also joined in the public records request.

While not suggesting that such agreements are illegal, the groups questioned the use of taxpayer dollars, which charter schools receive from the state, as “hush money.” Charter schools, public schools that are freed from some of the regulations imposed on their more traditional counterparts, are exempt from some provisions of Ohio’s public records law. 

The whistleblower reportedly contacted state Auditor Dave Yost’s office, the State Board of Education, and the Department of Education over several months late last year with next to little action taken as a result.

Democrats have called for a criminal investigation into the allegations and have worked to make ECOT a key issue against Republicans in this year’s statewide elections, particularly in Mr. Yost’s campaign for attorney general.

The state had been gradually clawing back the past overpayments by reducing monthly aid to the school. Then ECOT shut down in January at the halfway point of the school year after Lake Erie West terminated its sponsorship.

That left an estimated 12,000 students scrambling to transfer to other schools.

ECOT has argued that the state changed the way it counts online students and then retroactively applied that to the school. That argument has not swayed a court to date, but, In February the Ohio Supreme Court heard its appeal. That decision is pending.

Contact Jim Provance at jprovance@theblade.com or 614-221-0496.

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