Posted: 8:52 p.m. Thursday, July 17, 2014

State auditor will investigate charter schools

By Drew Simon and Josh Sweigart

Staff Writer

Ohio’s auditor and local law enforcement are included on the list of agencies investigating concerns raised by former employees of actions at a group of Dayton charter schools.

Auditor Dave Yost confirmed Thursday that his office opened a probe earlier this month after the Ohio Education Association labor group passed along allegations of administrators at Horizon Science Academy tampering with standardized tests.

“We’re concerned about the integrity of the testing, particularly at the Dayton school but also at all 19 schools in Ohio,” Yost said of claims by two former teachers that administrators were seen filling in answers on standardized tests.

The Ohio Department of Education, meanwhile, said Thursday that it contacted Montgomery County Children Services and Dayton police this week after former Horizon employees reported sex acts among middle school kids and possible sexual harassment.

“We want to remind all educators that it is their responsibility to report all allegations of abuse or neglect to authorities immediately,” said ODE spokesman John Charlton.

ODE is planning its own investigation after former employees presented their concerns to the Ohio Board of Education during the public comment portion of the board’s Tuesday meeting. The testimonials were organized by the liberal group Progress Ohio.

Charlton said it’s unclear if anyone — including the teachers who testified this week — contacted law enforcement previously.

“If they didn’t report those things and waited until the board meeting to pull a political stunt, it’s really disheartening to me,” he said.

The FBI is also investigating 19 charters managed by Concept Schools — including those in Dayton — and served search warrants at the school last month for a white collar investigation.

Concept Schools issued a statement saying it can’t comment on the FBI investigation, except to say that it was related so the federal E-Rate program, which provides grants for telecommunications equipment and Internet access to schools.

“The inquiry will not affect the academic or extracurricular operations of our schools,” the statement says. “We have been asked to provide information and are cooperating with the government in this matter.”

Horizon’s three Dayton-area schools have received $5.9 million in state funding this year to serve a combined 735 students.

‘We have to suffer’

Kimiko Hardy said if the accusations turn out to be true she would consider moving her children out of Horizon to a different charter school, but said she would not move them back into the public school system.

“If it’s true, then I guess we have to suffer the consequences,” said her daughter Jasime. “I don’t hope the school gets the consequences, because there’s too many kids involved in this school.”

Kellie Kockensparger was one of the former teachers who testified at the board meeting in Columbus.

“I don’t think parents had any idea what was going on at the school,” said Kockensparger, who taught at the Dayton charter school for three years before leaving for another Dayton-area teaching job last March.

Jasmine Hardy said she was surprised to see her former language arts teacher speaking about the accusations and added that she was an excellent teacher.

“When I said I couldn’t do it, she pushed me to do it,” Jasmine Hardy said.

Sex investigations

Horizon school administrators did report sexual infractions to law enforcement on numerous occasions, according to a review by this newspaper of call logs from the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office.

Since 2004, deputies have been dispatched five times to investigate sexual offenses at the two schools in the sheriff’s office jurisdiction. There were no sexual complaints at the third school since 2010, when the sheriff’s office took over dispatching for that area.

More detailed records from recent years show one incident this year involved a student taking a photo of another male student while he was on the toilet with his pants down. Another from 2013 involved a sixth-grader accused of inappropriately hugging a female student.

The oldest call entered as a sex offense was in 2007.

It’s not clear when the actions alleged by the former employees took place. They included parents not being told that students were having oral sex when they were supposed to be at a school function, and students not being disciplined for playing a “game” that involved male students moving their hands up female students’ legs.

New claims

Progress Ohio also released new information Thursday purporting to show that administrators were aware of some of the issues at the school before they became public.

A memo titled “Student Concerns: Why they think they are failing” was handed to teachers after students were called into the cafeteria and asked about their behavior and grades, according to Michelle VanVleet, who worked for the schools from 2010 to this year.

It lists teachers watching movies instead of teaching, “Teachers are not coming to work,” and “Classes are like a playground.”

Another memo focuses largely on the schools being at risk of lawsuits from teachers insulting students, threatening them and hitting them; as well as students having sex in the school and condoms in the hall.

VanVleet allegedly took photos of the memos and supplied them to Progress Ohio. The schools did not respond Thursday to questions about the memos’ validity, or a records request for copies of the memos.

Statewide review

Yost said he will try to wrap up his investigation of the school soon so that findings could inform a statewide review of charter school oversight.

State Sen. Peggy Lehner, R- Kettering, called for a group to do a thorough review of Ohio’s charter laws. She is chairwoman of the Senate education committee and a non-voting member of the state school board.

With this and other recent charter scandals, the issue has become political with Democrats vying for auditor, attorney general and governor all criticizing charter oversight.

Yost said that 22 people have been charged or indicted after charter school investigations his office was involved in, and half of all of the misspent money his office identifies in audits is linked to charter schools.

“My office has been probably the most aggressive of any auditors office since charter schools came into existence,” he said.