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Published: Wednesday, 7/20/2005

ESC Contracts approved for 114 charter schools

BY IGNAZIO MESSINA
BLADE STAFF WRITER

The Lucas County Educational Service Center last night voted to ratify 114 charter school contracts to eliminate concerns raised by one of its own members and a state senator that 78 of those agreements were illegal.

The Lucas County ESC board said previously it sponsored 112 schools throughout Ohio, but admitted last night, at the end of a nearly three-hour meeting, that it had erred and actually sponsors 114.

Joe Rutherford, board president, blamed the error on a "mix-up" and dismissed concerns that the agency did not know how many schools it charters and is responsible for overseeing.

Joan Kuchcinski, a member of the Lucas County ESC board, blew the whistle on her own agency this month when she claimed it broke state law by allowing Superintendent Tom Baker to independently approve millions of dollars in charter school contracts.

None of the last 78 charter school applications approved by Mr. Baker were voted on by the Lucas County ESC board.

Instead, it voted 4-1 on Jan. 20, 2004, to give Mr. Baker sole authority to perform that function. Ms. Kuchcinski cast the dissenting vote.

Last night, the board voted 4-1 to ratify all 114 charter school contracts. Ms. Kuchcinski voted no.

"At this time, it is impossible to make an informed decision about the charter schools, so I vote no," she said. "Asking the board to vote on the contracts so quickly seems to be an admission of wrongdoing."

Ms. Kuchcinski moved that the vote on the contracts be postponed until they could be studied. She also moved that each of the 114 schools be voted on separately.

None of her fellow board mem-bers would second her motions.

After the meeting, board member Judy Hansen said she had read "quite a few of the contracts," and she had trusted Mr. Baker to approve the agreements.

The board also voted 4-1 last night to release 64 other charter schools that have not yet opened from contracts with the Lucas County ESC.

Those schools must now find other sponsors if they intend to compete in a lottery for 30 state-budgeted slots available for new charter schools.

Since new state regulations limit to 75 the number of charter schools the Lucas County ESC is allowed to sponsor, it could not keep those 64 new charter schools and must reduce its total number of schools to 75 by next year.

Ms. Kuchcinski voted no on that measure as well.

Before voting, the board met in private for almost two hours to discuss legal matters with its attorney over the objection of Ms. Kuchcinski, who said it was misapplying state law that allows public bodies to meet in private.

The state auditor's office announced July 7 that it would begin a review of the Lucas County ESC and whether Mr. Baker illegally contracted for sponsorship of 78 charter schools.

State Sen. Teresa Fedor (D., Toledo) sent a letter to Auditor Betty Montgomery asking her office to investigate why he was allowed to independently approve the agreements since Ohio law requires the board to vote on those contracts.

"If they are going to just rubber-stamp more than 100 contracts, there is something wrong," Senator Fedor said. "A lot of these schools are not educationally sound. That board is unbelievable. They have to take more hands-on responsibility for overseeing their schools."

Together, the 114 schools are allocated about $140 million in public money. A staff of nine based in Toledo is charged with monitoring those schools.

The ESC collects a percentage of that money from the schools: 1 percent if it is the sponsor and 2 percent if it does fiscal work for the school but is not the sponsor.

If it does the fiscal work and is the sponsor, it collects 2.5 percent of the state-allocated money.

Mr. Rutherford said the ESC collected about $3 million from its charter schools.

Mr. Baker was not at last night's meeting and could not be reached for comment.

He sent a letter to the board on July 13 stating he wished to resign on Sept. 1, but the board rejected the request that night during a special meeting.

Instead, it granted him vacation time until Sept. 1.

Contact Ignazio Messina at:

imessina@theblade.com

or 419-724-6171.



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