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So what is a school system to do when faced with evidence that it has impermissibly and unlawfully altered data to make its performance seem good, when it was in fact bad? If it is Columbus City Schools, lawyer up, clam up, obfuscate and deny.

Audits and Investigations Uncover Fraud and Data Manipulation

After a year of damning report after damning report, CCS has yet to admit any serious problems. Board member Ramona Reyes says, “we need to act on facts and evidence. We need not rush to judgment with suspicions, but take firm action when violations are proven.“ The Board apparently never found any violations with former Superintendent Gene Harris, who retired at her leisure this past summer. The first damning report came from Auditor of the State of Ohio David Yost, and found that each of the ten middle schools tested improperly coded students as having withdrawn or transferred, which removed those records from the school and district report cards. Auditor Yost said, “in each of [the ten schools] we found pervasive evidence of students who had been rolled up to the state, who had a break in enrollment that was not supported by documentation,” – called data scrubbing. Data scrubbing is the practice of removing students from enrollment, without lawful reason. “It is clear that major improvements must be made at the Columbus City Schools,” Auditor Yost said. “Sound decisions about our children’s education depend on accurate records and a watchful eye over taxpayer dollars.” Auditor Yost’s investigation remains on-going, in his words “every time we turn over another rock at Columbus, we find something new.” Another state audit found Columbus schools was contracting with and paying for “phantom tutors,” who were “stealing opportunities from the children who need them most,” according to Yost. (See “Scandal, Corruption, and Cover-Ups Plague Columbus City Schools,” Free Press, September 5-12, 2013.) This was followed by the CCS Internal Auditor releasing a report that said “each of the Columbus City Schools altered student data by breaking the enrollment of students, effectively excluding students from the school and district Report Card metrics … and Columbus City Schools temporarily demoted students effectively excluding students from the school building, District and state Report Card metrics.” Yet another state audit found unaccounted for money, including a $3,051 transaction that was fictitiously recorded as a deposit entry to the school’s armored car service bank collection log,” and projected that $269,646 related to the Title I Grants and Race to the Top funds may have been misspent. Investigations of Columbus City schools are now on-going by the Auditor of State, Ohio Department of Education and U.S. Department of Justice (FBI). Sources report the FBI is investigating contract steering, and that agents were actively meeting with Columbus City Schools employees at their homes over the summer.

Lawsuits

The School Board’s response was to hire attorney Buzz Trafford, at Porter Wright, to advise the district. Trafford’s advice is seemingly to admit nothing and deny everything. This led to a series of nonpublic Executive Session meetings between the school Board and Trafford that spawned a lawsuit by The Columbus Dispatch, which argued that meetings must be public. The Trial Court agreed with the Dispatch, and issued a preliminary order stopping the School Board from meeting in private with its attorney about the school attendance and data scrubbing issues. The School Board continues to object; however, and the case is set for trial on October 28th. The lawsuit concerning the holding of private, rather than public, meetings has cost the school board at least $175,000. Another party, parent Marvin Perkins, has filed a lawsuit challenging the data scrubbing. New Judge Kim J. Brown in the Court of Common Pleas ruled in favor of the school district, saying the school district has blanket immunity from liability under state law. Perkins has filed to appeal that decision, saying through attorney John Sherrod of Mills Mills Fiely and Lucas, “The trial court simply reaffirmed that state law provides blanket governmental immunity to certain state employees, it did not on the other hand directly address the next-level issue that the appeals court will be presented with, which is whether teachers and administrators who purposely falsify data in order to serve their own proprietary interests should be protected by that same form of blanket immunity.” Sherrod continues, “we don’t think the Legislature intended to sanction purposeful data scrubbing by our schools when it drafted the immunity statute, and that's why we are appealing. In our class action lawsuit we allege that every named defendant intentionally altered data for his or her own personal economic gain. That by definition is a ‘proprietary’ function as opposed to a ‘governmental’ function, which destroys immunity. The alteration of these records didn't help these students. The second there was even the specter of any selfish motive to the detriment of these students, any thought of immunity flies out the window." A third lawsuit by Columbus Free Press Editorial Board Chair Jonathan Beard alleges that his family was wrongfully deprived of access to the Ohio Educational Choice Program due to data scrubbing at East High School during the 2010-2011 school year. East High School made 42,600 attendance changes in that year, and the Internal Auditor found that every one of the ten student files she audited showed a withdrawal without documentation. To date, CCS has encumbered more than $750,000 for legal costs associated with these issues. The schools have not complied, in a timely fashion, with a Free Press public records request seeking updated information about the costs of litigation. In an email, CCS attorney Larry Braverman said “We will provide you with copies of all records to which you are entitled under the Open Record law and will let you know when they are available.” Under Ohio’s sunshine laws, public entities are required to provide public documents “promptly.” The Free Press public records request was submitted August 28th, and The Free Press does not believe CCS is providing critical documents promptly as required by Ohio law. This embattled school board is going to the ballot with the full support of the Mayor and City Council, and a host of other community leaders. Whether voters will hold Columbus City Schools accountable for past performance, or whether a million dollar advertising campaign based on an optimistic (though perhaps unrealistic) future will prevail, will say a lot about the state of democracy in Columbus.