Federal No Child Left Behind funds were paid out to a number of Supplemental Educational Services (SES) vendors located at dubious addresses including low income apartments, run down storefronts, P .O . boxes and other various locations where the SES businesses did not exist .

What’s Columbus City Schools (CCS) to do when it’s in the midst of perhaps the largest scandal in its history? Ask the voters for one of the largest levy expansions ever. Scandal, corruption and cover-ups equal “give us more money.”

The levy is controversial in many ways. None more so than the fact that the Columbus Educational Commission (CEC), the people recommending the levy, were appointed by the mayor and are not elected school board members. The Republican-controlled statehouse and governor are mandating a local levy vote through state law.

On July 15, 2013 in a bipartisan ceremony, Ohio Governor John Kasich signed into law a bill forcing Columbus City Schools to place a tax levy on the ballot in November. If the levy passes, residents of the Columbus School district will be forced to give money to both public schools and charter schools. Mayor Coleman was granted the power to sponsor charter schools through the city government.

So after decades of well-documented corruption, the Mayor’s committee recommended a 24 percent increase in property taxes with some $8.5 million earmarked for private charter schools. Alex Fischer, President of the Columbus Partnership, a consortium of 52 major institutions including most of the largest Columbus-based corporations was at the ceremony. He was quoted in the Dispatch, a member of the Partnership, as saying, “We’ve got to continue to stack hands and hold hands and hug one another.” But no one seemed to be hugging or holding fast to the history of the district.

One controversial element of the proposed levy is an expensive expansion of pre-kindergarten education. This is occurring at the same time that former Columbus School Board President Stephanie Hightower, now the president and CEO of the Urban League, is mired in a scandal for failing to secure Head Start funds to prepare pre-kindergarten children for school. Hightower is one of the commissioners appointed to the Columbus Educational Commission by Mayor Coleman.

Also, the commissioners want to replace the school’s current internal auditor with an independent auditor that will primarily answer to the city. The current Columbus School Board auditor is one of the only people who fought to expose both the “data scrubbing” scandal and the criminal stealing of money in the No Child Left Behind tutoring program.

Data scrubbing is the technical term for manipulating school records. Allegedly, Columbus school officials went into the computer system and changed students’ grades so that fewer failed and eliminated days absent to raise grade and attendance rates. The tutoring scandal, which has led to one felony indictment already, involved old-fashioned organized crime. Vendors billed the school system for students that were never tutored and for tutoring centers that never existed.

Gintherizing the City Schools

A new “independent” auditor would report to a “Selection Committee” comprised of Columbus’s Mayor Michael Coleman and City Council President (currently Andy Ginther), the School Board President (currently Carol Perkins), City Auditor, and a Franklin County Probate Court Judge. Critics charge that Ginther did nothing while he was on the Columbus School Board when data scrubbing first surfaced. Ginther was initially appointed to the Columbus City School Board in 2000 to replace Mark Hatch, elected \in 2001 and re-elected in 2005. As the Dispatch points out, Ginther was there in the fall of 2004 when two anonymous messages were sent to the School Board asserting that high level school officials were “cooking the books” on the state-required district report cards. The letters obtained by the Dispatch exposed whistleblower revelations on how data is collected, controlled, massaged and then delivered to the Ohio Department of Education. One of the whistleblowers even stated that the voters should know before the levy.  

One whisteblower letter to Mr. Ginther dated October 25, 2004, said “this act of deception by the Columbus school district cannot go on any longer. Please do whatever you have to do to stop this from continuing and I hope our embarrassment to the state, our students and the community can be forgiven. Don’t let this accountability issue come out after the upcoming levy vote; it’s not fair to the public. Remember, STEP UP, MAKE IT HAPPEN” (all emphasis in original document). The other whistleblower email dated November 30, 2004 said “many people in MIS know of this unethical and maybe criminal data ‘cleansing’ but are afraid to speak up. This data cleansing process is with full knowledge and authority of CIO Steve Tankovich and EMIS coordinator, Janie Zacherl.”

Ginther’s reaction? To agree to the course of “investigation” recommended by Steve Tankovich in his November 18, 2004 memo to Superintendent Harris. CCS, while under Ginther’s leadership as Chair of the Audit and Accountability Committee, followed the recommendation of the very person named as culpable in a whistleblower letter to Ginther.

Ginther’s other action was to assist Board President Stephanie Hightower, as they relieved former CCS Internal Auditor Tina Abdella from her duties and her office just as she was set to begin an investigation of the data scrubbing charges. And, no, Ginther did nothing to let voters know about the brewing scandal prior to the levy, which passed, nor did Ginther ensure the Board-approved audit of enrollment data was executed by the subsequent Internal Auditor over the next two years Ginther served on the school board. Thus Andrew Ginther, through his inaction as Chair of the Audit and Accountability Committee of the Columbus City Schools, effectively ensured another ten years of false reporting of data on Columbus students that has harmed tens of thousands of Columbus students and precipitated the spending of hundreds of millions of dollars of levies against Columbus property owners that were sold on the false premise of educational achievement.

The newly created auditor would also report to School Board President Carol Perkins, who has been accused of obstructing the investigation in both scandals. Perkins was admonished by Auditor of State David Yost for pressuring current CCS Internal Auditor Carolyn Smith, as she investigated the data scrubbing scandal. Perkins also led the school board into unlawful private meetings that excluded the public in violation of Ohio’s Open Meetings laws to discuss this scandal, and has directed that interviews of employees in connection with the scandal be covered by attorney-client privilege and thus shielded from the public (unlike personnel records of every other public employee in the state of Ohio).

It is fair to ask whether two of the five presumed members of the Selection Committee have at least a duality of interest --  if not a clear conflict of interest – in their role overseeing an “Independent” Auditor who is investigating activities in which they played a part. Is this Selection Committee, comprised of one member who was key to stopping the investigation in 2004-2006 (Andy Ginther), and another member who has appeared to do all she could to cover up the transgressions (Carol Perkins),  in the public interest, or in the private interest of those political figures? The Free Press will do further investigation to determine why the CEC thought this conflict-ridden situation with people who are so integral to this scandal and its coverup was a good solution to the corruption endemic at Columbus City Schools.

After analyzing the ten major functions assigned to the new independent auditor, former Columbus School Board member Stephanie Groce asked the obvious questions: “What’s left for the School Board? Do they become a largely ceremonial body with the task of merely presiding over a district and occasionally hiring a superintendent and treasurer (provided they have the blessing of the mayor)?”

Groce also asked the key question: “Why was the CCS internal auditor (and staff) singled out for elimination?”

Corporatizing the Educational Commission

Groce’s comments also refer to one of the stranger political creatures in Columbus history: the undemocratic Columbus Educational Commission (CEC). Coleman and Ginther created the 25-member appointed CEC. While some of the Commission members have educational backgrounds, others appointed by the Mayor are more curious selections. For example, CEC appointees include Tanny Crane of the Crane Group, Chad Jester of Nationwide Insurance, and Jordan Miller of Fifth Third Bank.

The Crane family and Nationwide Insurance, who are part owners in the Columbus Blue Jackets, were beneficiaries of a quarter billion dollar bailout from the Columbus city government that assigned casino tax money to bail those entities out of the money-losing Nationwide Arena after virtually no public debate. Nationwide was listed as a 30 percent owner of Nationwide Arena where the Blue Jackets play.

According to the Columbus Dispatch, “With maintenance, operating and debt service costs, arena ownership is expected to cost the city and county more than $250 million through 2039.” The Dispatch added, “The deal is expected to save the struggling Blue Jackets $9.5 million per year through a rent-free lease [at Nationwide Arena].”

Nationwide infamously received a massive property tax abatement for its world headquarters in downtown Columbus leading to a more than two decade battle with the late Columbus School Board member Bill Moss. Moss charged that Nationwide had committed to building the Columbus school system a $4 million teachers' academy, but reneged on its promise. The Crane family has been listed as a minority owner in the Blue Jackets along with Dispatch Publishing owned by the Wolfe family.

History vs. Columbus political amnesia

A brief review of the history would be in order before the levy vote. The law, signed by Republican Governor Kasich and supported by Columbus’s Democratic Mayor Coleman, occurs under a state public school system whose funding has been declared unconstitutional several ways.

Corruption has long been endemic to the Columbus School Board going back to the 1940s when the mob put a well-known bookie, James Rhodes, on the Board to help steer contracts, according to FBI files.

The key to understanding the current financial crisis leading to the levy vote is the notorious “Win-Win” Agreement. In 1986, the Columbus School Board entered into the initial land grant agreement. “Win-Win” referred to a system that allowed people to live in the city of Columbus, but have their children attend suburban schools. The majority of their property tax money then went to the suburban schools. This haphazard system promoted both racial and economic educational apartheid when it was codified under Ohio law in Senate Bill 298 that same year.

Looking back at 1984, two years prior to the Agreement, one finds that the Columbus school boundaries would have included a total tax base of more than $4 billion in levy funds by the year 2000. At that time, Columbus’s district had nearly 80 percent of the city’s tax base in its district. Over the next decade and a half, the city shrunk to 64 percent of Columbus’s tax base, thanks to “Win-Win.” In a 1999 study, Phi Delta Kappa told the Columbus School Board that, “There’s a giant monster in this district that is being ignored and enabled, and it is ‘race.’”

After the report, School Board member Bill Moss filed a lawsuit against the Columbus Public Schools that stated: “In 1986, the State of Ohio knew, or should have known, that given the history of racism and discrimination in the State of Ohio, County of Franklin, City of Columbus and the Columbus City School district, the terms of the ‘Win-Win’ Agreement would likely promote and facilitate ‘White flight’ from the Columbus city school district.”

From Win-Lose to the DeRolph decision

On March 24, 1997, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled in DeRolph v. State that the funding system for Ohio public schools “fails to provide for a thorough and efficient system of common schools.” The day after the court’s decision, then-Governor George Voinovich and Republican Senate President Richard Finan and House Speaker Jo Ann Davidson denounced the Republican-dominated Ohio Supreme Court’s decision.

The Supreme Court had returned oversight to the case to trial court Judge Linton D. Lewis, Jr. The Editorial Board of the Columbus Dispatch supported Governor Voinovich denouncing the verdict as “One highly injurious lurch.” In their editorial entitled, “Judicial lawmaking: High court wreaks havoc on Ohio schools” they dismissed notions that many of Ohio’s school districts were underfunded.

The court was direct in its attack on the current funding system that bases school budgets primarily on the taxes generated from property values: “We admonish the General Assembly that it must create an entirely new school funding system.” Voinovich suggested that the ruling might be openly disobeyed.

A 1990 Ohio public school facility survey estimated that virtually every schoolhouse in the state needed repair, including $10.3 million just to bring them up to the existing building code.

The year following the DeRolph decision, the Dispatch led a campaign to remove then-Columbus School Treasurer Ben Pittman. In a 4-3 vote, Pittman was removed on September 21, 1998. Then-School Board member Loretta Heard stated: “Mr. Pittman is being forced out or lynched because he dared to stop some major banks, contracting companies and other businesses that our district purchases services from, from overcharging or ripping off taxpayers.”

Pittman was driven out in large part by a Columbus Dispatch editorial campaign. On July 9, 1998, the Dispatch ran an article entitled “School treasurer not at head of the class.” Just ten days before he was fired, Pittman received a Certificate of Achievement for Excellence in Financial Reporting awarded by the Government Finance Officers Association of the United States and Canada. Pittman’s award-winning report was honored for its “spirit of financial disclosure.”

Bang the shoe loudly, Moss stood in the gap

There has not been much transparency in the Columbus School’s finances since the departure of Pittman and the defeat of School Board member Bill Moss in 2003. What is often remembered about Bill Moss is that he banged his shoe on a table disrupting the February 4, 2003 Columbus School Board meeting. What is obscured is the reason that Moss banged his shoe and said “Look at the thieves, look at the thieves.”

The reason was clearly outlined at the time by Acting Internal Auditor Philip Watson in a seven-page summary and report exposing bid-rigging. Watson’s report concluded that “This information might possibly have provided CSC [Computer Science Corporation] with an unfair advantage over the other vendors. They could have had insider information that allowed them to craft what the ERP considered as the best proposal.”

Moss’ outburst saved the school district $500,000 by preventing a purchase based on a rigged deal. Those days of political courage are long gone.

In June, just prior to the 2001 academic year, Columbus schools initiated its controversial Acceleration Academy program. The program was a precursor to the recent data scrubbing scandal. The criteria for a student to be placed in the Academy, often without parents’ permission, was based on three standards: “Absent from school a minimum of 60 days last school year”; “Two or more years behind academically”; and “Have not passed Ohio ninth grade proficiency test.”

By placing them in the Academy, where school began at 1:55 p.m., the Columbus school system benefited by not having the students’ academic records averaged in to overall student performance. An outcry by parents forced Superintendent Gene Harris to pledge “We will not put children in the Acceleration Academy or keep them in the Acceleration Academy if there’s not a signed permission.”

Hightower’s highhandedness
First elected in 1999, Hightower ascended to the School Board presidency in 2001 pushing an agenda to weaken public participation in Board matters. With transparency no longer valued, the Columbus School Board rang in the new year on Tuesday, January 2, 2001 by destroying the tradition of free speech at School Board meetings. Five of the seven School Board members voted to end the traditional practice of allowing open public comments at meetings. Equally shameful, the School Board moved the starting time of its meetings from 5 p.m. to 3 p.m., essentially preventing access from working parents. Hightower was aptly aided in this move by her newly-elected ally, Andy Ginther.

Educational rights activist Jerry Doyle was arrested at that January 2 meeting and was charged with trespassing at the podium. The School Board had given him a speaker's slip and then decided that their policy barring open public comment should take place immediately instead. Doyle was prosecuted at the School Board's insistence and later served 90 days in jail.

As part of the new policy, the public can no longer comment on school issues that are not up for a vote on the Board's agenda. This is a policy that became a model of citizen exclusion for the Columbus City Council which then began its policy of ending its council meetings and turning off television cameras before allowing public comment.

Hightower, backed by half a million dollars, elected a bipartisan “Unity” ticket that included two Democrats and two Republicans running for School Board. The ticket succeeded in its goal to thwart the re-election of Moss, who was running a populist, anti-corporate campaign. Moss’ death in 2005, while he was plotting a comeback, signaled an end to an era of grassroots citizen challenges to Columbus’s economic and political elite.

The apathetic write-in era
In the 2007 election, Republican-endorsed mayoral candidate Bill Todd filed a lawsuit on behalf of five Columbus City School residents accusing the Ohio Department of Education and the Columbus City School system of "maintaining and unfair and inequitable system of education." Todd pointed out that Winterset Elementary School spent $12,507 per pupil during the 2005-2006 academic year, while Liberty Elementary School spent only $7,779 per pupil.

Todd argued that "Approximately half of the 41 failing elementary schools in Columbus spent less than the system-wide average for elementary schools." Todd noted, "This is not a partisan issue. This is an economic issue about the future of our children in Columbus."

With Moss gone, both the city’s titans and political candidates express little interest in Columbus School Board seats. In both the 2009 and 2011 elections, not enough candidates filed for the open seats. Any candidate who filed enough signatures was guaranteed an uncontested seat and write-ins were elected to the Board in both years.

The freepress.org published an article written by Kennedy Kent and James Whitaker of the group Parent Advocates for Students in School (PASS) charging that in November 2010, “Columbus City School Board had abandoned its role to monitor the district’s No Child Left Behind (NCLB) funds.” At the time there were over $20 million in purchase orders to vendors, many questionable, that had been paid out, but not signed off on by the School Board.

The freepress.org article lists the open and notorious levels of fraud and corruption in the Columbus school district: (copied directly from original article)
1.    These financial transactions don't make sense, business or common
2.    Evasive or unreasonable answers to questions
3.    Purchases are bypassing the normal procurement procedures
4.    Checks going to P.O. Boxes
5.    Vendors without physical addresses
6.    Handwritten invoices vs. computer generated invoices
7.    Invoices placed on unauthorized forms
8.    Vendor receives multiple checks in one month
9.    SES Director agrees vendor hourly rates outrageous even though contractual agreement with SES vendor states rates must be fair market value.

The Free Press just wrote Yost a letter
The first line in the letter to Ohio State Auditor David Yost read: “Please consider this a reporting of fraud involving federal funds earmarked for poor children to receive free tutoring.” The letter went on to say: “…I came into possession of a number of canceled checks of at least nine SES [Supplemental Educational Services] providers going to low income apartments, run-down storefronts, P.O. boxes and other various locations where the SES vendor businesses do not exist. These canceled checks range from $6000 to over $100,000.”

As the author of that letter (dated January 24, 2011), I made it clear why I turned to the State Auditor, “I also share this information with you because district officials do not appear to be capable of investigating their own.”

The freepress.org also came into possession of an audio tape of a conversation between School Board member Mike Wiles and Hanifah Kambon where they agree that the actions of school district officials are “criminal.”

The No Child Left Behind scandal is potentially worse than the data scrubbing scandal. There is little to suggest that showering the school district with a massive levy increase will end its culture of corruption. Some of the people who fostered that culture, Hightower and Ginther, are now being sold as the solution.
Bob Fitrakis is Editor in Chief of the Columbus Free Press and ran for Columbus School Board in 2003.