Auditors investigating how schools, ODE report attendance

The state auditor’s office is launching a statewide investigation into how school districts, charter schools and the Ohio Department of Education report student attendance data after questionable practices surfaced in three districts.

“It appears that attendance report rigging is not a localized problem with Columbus Public Schools, but that it may be more systemic – and that raises the question of what role ODE played during the time that false reports were made by multiple schools,” Auditor Dave Yost wrote in a letter sent Thursday to Ohio Board of Education President Debe Terhar.

Gov. John Kasich, Ohio Superintendent of Public Instruction Stan Heffner and other state school board members were copied on the letter.

Yost and Heffner had agreed to conduct a joint investigation, which the auditor’s office would lead, into allegations that the Columbus school district allegedly falsified attendance records to boost its state report card rating.

That investigation was broadened to include Toledo City Schools, with the focus on test scores that didn’t count toward the districts’ state report cards because the students were struck from the rolls and re-enrolled later.

On Wednesday, ODE said its year-long investigation found the Lockland School District in Hamilton County falsely reported withdrawing 36 students during the school year. In response, ODE reduced the district’s report card rating from “Effective” to “Continuous Improvement” and referred the case to its Office of Professional Conduct to determine whether employees participated in conduct unbecoming the teaching profession.

Yost said in the letter there is no evidence at this time that anyone with ODE “is involved in the attendance report rigging, but the apparently widespread nature of the practice begs the question of at least a lack of oversight. Even so, our work must proceed independently of ODE so that the people of Ohio may have confidence in the findings.”

Ohio Department of Education spokesman John Charlton said his department welcomes the involvement of the state auditor’s office.

“ODE believes in the integrity of the data. When it is misused, we want the investigation to go wherever it leads,” Charlton said.

Yost asked the state board of education to direct ODE staff to preserve all documents and records and said his office will require assistance in data mining certain ODE databases and access to records and personnel for inteviews.

“Criminal charges may or may not result from any referral that might occur as a result of our audit,” Yost wrote. “Accordingly, staff should be advised that tampering with evidence or witnesses may constitute a criminal act,” under the Ohio Revised Code.

Staff Writer Jill Kelley contributed to this report.