COLUMBUS — A state audit released today showed what Toledo Public Schools has already admitted: The district withdrew chronically absent students from the classroom and then promptly re-enrolled them to “scrub” them from data reported to the state.
But Auditor Dave Yost stopped short of saying the district acted illegally even as he and federal investigators continue to delve further into a possibly criminal scheme of scrubbing and grade changing at Columbus City Schools.
The audit did not find a statewide systemic problem with scrubbing, citing just a handful of isolated cases. That list also included the Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Canton districts plus the smaller Campbell in Mahoning County; Marion City; Northridge in Montgomery County; and the Winton Woods and Lockland districts in Hamilton County.
The audit has been forwarded to the U.S. Department of Education and the Ohio Inspector General for their review. While Mr. Yost declined to assign motivation on the part of Toledo and other districts, he made it clear they are not considered to be in the same league as Columbus.
He said the difference is “kind and quantity.”
“We are developing a very good picture of what was going on in Columbus, and we haven’t seen those kinds of developments, that kind of evidence elsewhere in the state,” Mr. Yost said.
Toledo had historically removed students from the rolls when they were absent from school five consecutive days without an excuse and 20 days total for the year. But the audit found that Toledo broke from the practice of unenrolling these students during the course of the year and instead waited until after receiving state achievement test results to pull the students.
The audit reviewed 884 students in nine Toledo schools and found 470 that it said appeared to violate the due process rights of students, including parent notification and court adjudication of truancy.
“Of these 470 instances, 417 also did not appear to meet the 5/20 rule,” it reads. “Additionally, (the auditor) noted 143 other exceptions related to lack of appropriate support for the noted attendance event, including 78 students for which no files could be provided by the District.
“Of the 616 total exceptions noted, 488 were related to students who had scores below 400 on at least one section of the statewide Ohio Achievement Assessments or Ohio Graduation Tests,” it reads.
TPS had voluntarily notified the state of its history after scrubbing practices landed Columbus on newspaper front pages. The superintendent at Columbus has since announced her resignation at the end of this school year, although she’s insisted her decision is not tied to the scandal. Another Columbus administrator at the center of the controversy has resigned.
“Toledo self-reported early in this process,” Mr. Yost said. “The facts are a little bit different on the ground in Toledo than they were elsewhere. What the inspector general concludes and the U.S. Department of Education, I can’t really predict.”
Toledo Superintendent Jerome Pecko, after meeting with the school board, announced late last month that he would not accept another three-year contract. The scrubbing investigation has not been cited as a factor in that decision.
In his written response to the audit, Mr. Pecko took issue with the audit’s contention that decisions to unenroll chronically absent students was not backed up by district records. He noted that the auditor from Mr. Yost’s office reviewed students’ physical files, but the supporting documentation could be found in computer files that the auditor did not access. The district is offering that data for study.
Mr. Pecko said he learned that the 5/20 rule had become common practice last June and blamed the Ohio Department of Education for failing to clarify the policy when the district reached out to it in the mid-2000s. When asked why the department had reportedly been unwilling to clarify the situation, Mr. Yost said his office had been unable to confirm that the question had indeed been asked.
Among other recommendations, Mr. Yost said lawmakers should change state law that forbids the department from connecting data to a specific student. An independent contractor instead compiles the data by student name and then supplies it to the state using an anonymous student identification numbers.
Mr. Yost said that disconnect has made it more difficult for the department to properly oversee student enrollment counts.
Toledo had been using the 5/20 rule since 2001 but dropped it when the district lost much of its top administration in 2005. The rule was later resurrected when school report cards dipped, but this time the district employed the rule after receiving its first report from the state on how it was faring on preliminary district report cards.
In his letter, Mr. Pecko said it would be unfair to punish district employees for employing “standing operating procedure.”
“Nevertheless, I terminated the practice of end of the year withdrawals for all data reported for (fiscal year) 2012,” Mr. Pecko wrote. “While the District’s performance rating (PI index) dropped by 1.2 percent, that drop was most likely attributable for the transformation plan implemented that year: a reconfiguration of all elementary and middle schools into K-8 schools, causing significant re-assignment of students (approximately 4,000) and staff (over 400 positions).”
The district has insisted that it withdrew truant students regardless of their test scores.
Mr. Pecko wrote that the district has since taken such decisions out of the hands of individual school buildings and has centralized them in a single office. Students are no longer unenrolled until juvenile court has become involved.
The audit sampled student withdrawal decisions with “improper support” at Rogers, Scott, and Start high schools; Byrnedale Middle School; and then Leverette, East Broadway, McTigue, and Samuel M. Jones at Gunckel Park elementary schools, and the Fulton//Kobacker at Robinson school for the emotionally disabled.