COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Education regulators are reviewing a whistleblower's claim that Ohio's then-largest online charter school intentionally inflated attendance figures tied to its state funding using software it purchased after previous allegations of attendance inflation, The Associated Press has learned.
A former technology employee of the now-shuttered Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow said he told the Ohio Department of Education last year that school officials ordered staff to manipulate student data with software obtained following the state's demand that it return $60 million in overpayments for the 2015-2016 school year.
The employee spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity for fear of professional repercussions for speaking out. His concerns were first raised in an Aug. 3 email to the state a month before it released its 2017 attendance review of ECOT.
The state challenged ECOT over how it claimed student time using the new software, called ActivTrak, after finding that it duplicated learning hours, according to Education Department spokeswoman Brittany Halpin.
Neil Clark, ECOT's lobbyist and spokesman throughout last year's review, dismissed the whistleblower's allegations.
"I think most of this is made-up, ridiculous attempts to abuse a corpse," he said. Clark said he no longer works for the school that abruptly closed in January.
Marion Little, the school's attorney, said Monday that he was unaware of the man's claims or that the Education Department had interviewed him. Messages were left with other school leaders seeking comment.
The whistleblower email and other department records, obtained by the AP through a public records request, show state officials waited until December to meet with the man about his concerns with the ActivTrak software.
Halpin said, "We appreciated hearing from this individual and will be taking into consideration the information for ECOT's (next attendance) review." That review will take place this summer.
In an interview, the whistleblower said that before he left the school last July he was in meetings where officials ordered staff to manipulate student data to reach desired outcomes.
"They would put a model in place, they would look at what it produced, then they would say, 'Well, this isn't enough time, so let's go back and tweak it a little here and tweak it a little there,'" he said.
Other then-ECOT employees contacted by the AP to corroborate the whistleblower's claims declined comment.
The Education Department previously found that the school significantly over-reported its number of full-time-equivalent students and owed the state $60 million for the 2015-2016 school year. ECOT could not document that nearly 60 percent of full-time students were getting the minimum 920 hours of "learning opportunities" required by the state. That prompted the state to ask the school to repay more than $60 million of the $106 million it received in state funding.
The Education Department had instituted a rule that recalculated ECOT's attendance based on student learning time rather than enrollment, a move ECOT continues to challenge in court as illegal.
The school then installed ActivTrak on school computers to track student learning in the new way the state required.
Another $19 million penalty was assessed for 2016-2017.
In December testimony at an administrative hearing on that review, ECOT Superintendent Brittny Pierson alleged the state engaged in a conspiracy to show the school had been overpaid. Data warehouse manager Michael Kubacki testified that the state erroneously applied the data it was provided by the school.
The whistleblower told the AP that the first run on the new software returned results showing students with just more than half the hours needed to justify ECOT's full reported enrollment — and, with that, its full state payment. He shared his assessment with the Education Department's top lawyer, Diane Lease, in an Aug. 3 email.
Halpin said that the department questioned ECOT officials extensively about ActivTrak as part of the state's attendance review for the 2016-2017 review.
"ODE challenged how ECOT was attempting to claim durational time — including ActivTrak time," she said.
She said it was not the department's job to question any intent behind data manipulation. She could not immediately say whether the whistleblower's email had been forwarded to law enforcement.
A message seeking comment left with the state auditor, which investigates charter schools, wasn't immediately returned.
State Sen. Joe Schiavoni, a Democratic gubernatorial candidate, and running mate Stephanie Dodd, a member of Ohio's state school board, on Monday called a criminal investigation into claims that ECOT "took unearned money from the state."
"This has gone on a decade too long, and it needs to end here," Schiavoni said. "If someone inside the organization is claiming this intent, then taxpayers and students deserve an investigation."
Sandy Theis, a former executive director of ProgressOhio, a liberal think tank that's been one of ECOT's most outspoken critics, said it's concerning that the Education Department has had the information for so long without acting on it.
She called the allegations evidence of a "scheme" to get money from taxpayers and said "the people responsible should be investigated and prosecuted."