COLUMBUS - Ohio's first online charter school has agreed to return $1.65 million in state aid paid on overstated enrollment figures.
Both the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, sponsored by the Lucas County Educational Service Center but based in Columbus, and the state chalked the settlement up to growing pains for a new breed of community school.
The agreement settles financial issues raised in a special audit last year by State Auditor Jim Petro, who identified the overpayments during a two-month period early in the school's inaugural year of 2000.
The blistering audit found students had been counted even though many had not received computers. ECOT students work on computers in their homes and communicate with teachers by e-mail.
The first regular annual audit of the school will be released today and is expected to show the school finished in the red in 2000-01. It will recommend appointment of an internal auditor and improved monitoring of the school's management contract.
J.C. Benton, a Department of Education spokesman, noted the state Board of Education initially declined to sponsor the school.. The school then found sponsorship from the Lucas County Educational Service Center.
“When eCOT began operations, we as well as eCOT, Lucas County, and Auditor Petro knew very quickly we were all going to have to work together to determine how we were going to monitor and oversee such a unique school,” Mr. Benton said.
Since then, two other online charter schools, including the University of Toledo's Ohio Distance & Electronic Learning Academy, have been approved. The state now counts students who have been formally signed up by parents and who are maintaining a certain number of hours of instruction as certified by their online instructors.
To recover the $1.65 million, the state will withhold nearly $46,000 a month in aid to the school over 36 months, beginning in July.
“Based on next year's projected income and student population, this represents less than 3 percent,” said Bill Lager, founder of eCOT and chief executive officer of the school's management company, Altair Management. “We don't like having to reduce by that much. But to get this behind us and establish standards for these schools, we'll endure the challenges.”
The school reports enrollment of about 3,100 students.
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