COLUMBUS - A “virtual” charter school owes the state $48,000 for enrolling students younger than 5 and older than 22, and can't find 28 of its computers worth $30,800, state Auditor Betty Montgomery said yesterday.
The audit of the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, known as eCOT, recommends several steps the charter school can take to improve how it handles tax dollars. The Lucas County Educational Service Center approved the school's charter in June, 2000.
“For these types of education alternatives to succeed, they must handle public dollars and publicly funded resources responsibly,” Ms. Montgomery said. “In this time of tough school budgets, the public cannot permit lax accountability of public dollars and public property.”
Ohio has 11 charter schools, referred to as “e-schools” or “virtual schools,” in which students work on computers in their homes across the state and communicate with teachers by e-mail, said J.C. Benton, a spokesman for the state Department of Education.
A Columbus firm, Altair Management, runs the electronic classroom and receives 10 percent of tax dollars that the state provides the charter school.
The state audit released yesterday said in 2001-2002, the fees totaled $1.6 million - with $1.1 million paid to Altair and $997,937, including delinquent fees and interest, still owed as of June 30, 2002.
Bill Lager, Altair's chief executive officer, didn't return messages left at his office.
The audit, which covered the charter school's finances from July 1, 2001, to June 30, 2002, found the school enrolled nine students below age 5 and two older than 22. State law says public schools are open to those from 5 to 22. Two students were 26, and the rest were under 5, said Joe Case, a Montgomery aide.
The audit also found that 28 school-owned computers worth $30,800 are missing because of an “inadequate fixed-asset tracking system, weak internal audit functions, and a failure by the school to recover computers when students withdrew from the program.”
The auditor's office said the charter school must try to recover the missing computers.
“You don't want people walking away with a computer at public expense,” Mr. Case said.
In 2000-2001, the charter school suffered a loss of $446,600 on “unreturned equipment” for about 400 computers that students who no longer were enrolled failed to return, the audit says. It's unclear how many of those computers remain missing.
Ms. Montgomery said the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow failed to receive or review reports from a firm it hired to track its computers, and the system still was flawed when the task was transferred in-house.
The audit was released nearly two years after then-state Auditor Jim Petro found the state gave eCOT $1.7 million more than it should have over two months in 2000.
Last year, the state began to withhold nearly $45,850 a month to recover $1.65 million overpaid to eCOT. The withholding of state aid is expected to run through June, 2005, the Department of Education said.
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