State education officials were told directly by Toledo Public Schools staff at least four years ago about the district's policy to withdraw and then re-enroll habitually truant students, but the state never told TPS officials to stop the "scrubbing" practice, according to the preliminary findings of an independent investigation.
The report by attorney Fritz Byers largely exonerates TPS officials, noting they did not violate state law or reporting guidelines in how they reported habitually truant students. The district's policy was a good-faith effort to accurately report data, after district personnel sought guidance from Ohio Department of Education officials, "but no such guidance has ever been forthcoming," Mr. Byers concluded.
He was hired by TPS Superintendent Jerome Pecko as an independent investigator after a Columbus Dispatch report about Columbus City Schools' data manipulation prompted him to examine Toledo's own practices.
Under the Toledo schools' practice, administrators withdrew, then re-enrolled, students who were habitually truant. The practice could improve test scores and attendance rates on the districts' state report cards, because only students who are continuously enrolled in a district are counted on the report cards.
The revelations from Columbus, Toledo, and an Ohio Department of Education investigation into practices in the Lockland district prompted the education department to investigate attendance reporting practices statewide. That was superseded by Auditor of State Dave Yost, who is now investigating school districts, charter schools, and the education department itself. The controversy has prompted the education department to delay release of this year's school district report cards, pending Mr. Yost's investigation.
"I think that attorney Byers did an excellent and thorough job," Mr. Pecko said of the report. "I think [the state auditor's] report, together with the one attorney Byers presented, would in my estimation be what the state needs for us to put this matter to closure and move on."
John Charlton, an education department spokesman, strongly disputed that the department hadn't provided proper guidance on how to report data. "The Ohio Department of Education welcomes any opportunity to review our processes for improvement when warranted," he said. "However, we will not accept responsibility for erroneous data submitted by the Toledo Public Schools."
He said later, "It sounds to me like TPS officials are trying to pass the buck. We are not going to take that blame. It's their fault for providing us with inaccurate information."
Lisa Sobecki, Toledo Board of Education president, said that the district wasn't passing the buck but was trying to get clarification about what it considers ambiguous rules.
"I think we all need to take ownership," Ms. Sobecki said.
Mr. Byers declined to respond to Mr. Charlton's comments. In describing his investigation, he said he found no evidence of any written guidance from the department about how to apply instructions about reporting truancy.
His preliminary report details the Toledo schools' attendance reporting practices dating to at least the 2002-2003 school year, during Eugene Sanders' superintendency. Most of the practices have been reported in The Blade, including the criteria used to withdraw students: five consecutive days and 20 days total missed without excuse. Administrators developed that policy, according to Mr. Byers' findings, after determining "that ODE intended that certain truant students be withdrawn from school enrollment and not included in state testing."
New in the report is TPS officials' accounts of conversations with state officials about the district's reporting practices. For instance, Toledo officials told Mr. Byers that members of the eight large urban Ohio districts met with department officials early last decade and that during those meetings, district officials asked for guidance about reporting truant students. State officials did not give any guidance, according to the report, "apparently on the ground that as a matter of policy the ODE staff did not provide such guidance, preferring to leave districts to the content and ambiguity of the EMIS Manual." EMIS stands for the Education Management Information System, a statewide data collection system for Ohio's primary and secondary education, including attendance records.
When Mr. Sanders and several top district administrators left for Cleveland in 2006, the withdrawal policy halted. A subsequent drop in Toledo's state test scores caused district officials to examine the data; when they found the difference in withdrawal policy, they reviewed their practices.
A Toledo Public Schools official called the education department during the 2007-08 year and described the truant-withdrawal practice. The state official told the Toledo official that the practice didn't follow the EMIS manual's intent but would not provide further guidance, according to the report.
Mr. Byers also notes a 2008 (Cleveland) Plain Dealer article that describes similar practices in the Cleveland district, with no public record of education department action in response.
"Although the ODE knew, directly from TPS as well as from press reports, of the withdrawal-and-re-enrollment practice, no one at ODE told a TPS administrator that the practice should be stopped or that it violated the manual," the report states.
Mr. Charlton said the department doesn't have, and never has had, a policy to not provide guidance on the manual. He said the department has asked Toledo officials for names of department employees who were a part of such conversations, but none has been forthcoming. "They can't provide a single name of who they talked to," he said.
Mr. Byers, who also represents The Blade newsroom on legal matters, said he wasn't aware of the department's request for names and dates of conversations. He said he was given the name of a state education employee, but wouldn't identify that person.
State auditor's investigators met with Toledo school employees this week, Mr. Pecko said. Mr. Yost's office declined to comment on the report.
Contact Nolan Rosenkrans at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6086.
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