4 local charter schools under investigation for attendance numbers

A surprise head count at 30 charter schools across Ohio uncovered wide discrepancies in the number of kids in class versus the attendance numbers reported by the schools to state officials, State Auditor Dave Yost announced Thursday. The findings raise concern about whether the state’s funding of charter schools is based on inaccurate data.

Auditors counted only 43 students in class Oct. 1 at the Dayton Technology Design High School, for example, not the 153 the school listed as enrolled that day. The school, also known as the Dayton Business Technology High School, is at 348 W. First Street in Dayton and is sponsored by Dayton Public Schools.

Yost said the Ohio Department of Education should investigate this and six other charters across Ohio where auditors found fewer than half the enrolled number of students.

“I’m really kind of speechless in everything that I found. It is quite a morass,” he said.

Another nine schools — including three in Dayton — had smaller discrepancies that Yost said may merit further investigation. Locally, these included the Richard Allen Preparatory Academy, Horizon Science Academy Dayton High School and City Day Community School. All three said tardy and truant students made up the difference between enrollment and actual students on site.

Charter schools are paid based on enrollment. Dayton Technology Design H.S. has received $1.3 million in state funding for 157 students so far this year.

“I think everyone needs to be concerned and we obviously have to address this and we’re going to continue to try to do that,” said state Sen. Peggy Lehner, R-Kettering, who chairs the Senate Education Committee.

43 students in school

Auditors showed up at 8:35 a.m. Oct. 1 at Dayton Technology Design H.S. and found just 43 students in school — well below the 172 estimated enrollment given in July 2014 and below the 153 students reported to Ohio Department of Education by the school to be in attendance on Oct. 1. School Director Karl Perkins told auditors that the headcount would be low because tardy students tend to arrive closer to 9 a.m. and some log onto the computer from home, the report said.

Yost’s team showed up again — unannounced — at 8:55 a.m. on Nov. 12 and counted 60 students at Dayton Technology Design H.S. The audit also noted that the school didn’t notify ODE that it would offer “blended” learning where students take classes in person and online.

Dayton Technology H.S. had a 74 percent attendance rate and a 43.5 percent four-year graduation rate for the 2013-14 school year.

Parent: ‘Show me a perfect system’

A reporter visited Dayton Technology Design H.S. Thursday as school was being dismissed and a small number of students were seen exiting at dismissal. Thomas Smith, who was picking up his son, said he’s not sure how to take the auditor’s report.

“Show me a perfect system…You’ve got to try and keep trying until something works,” he said. “If it all comes down to numbers, then come up with a better numbers system.”

School officials did not comment.

Officials with the Dayton city school district, which is paid 3 percent of the school’s revenue to provide oversight as the school’s sponsor, said they are still reviewing the findings.

Richard Allen superintendent responds

Michelle Thomas, superintendent of Richard Allen Schools, said the 11 students who weren’t there when auditors arrived were simply absent that day. “When you actually look at the auditor’s report, Richard Allen Preparatory compares favorably to every other school listed,” she said.

She said Yost’s office has displayed “discriminatory animus” toward her schools, which have seen decreased enrollment, “based in no small part on the continuous negative media coverage that we receive, all of which ultimately originates from Auditor Yost’s office.

Richard Allen Prep has received $1.2 million from the state this year to teach 156 students. It is one of four Richard Allen schools in Dayton and Hamilton.

Yost pitches reforms

Yost recommended the following changes for Ohio’s charter school system:

* Better segregation of duties between school sponsors, operators and ODE;

* Apply conflict of interest laws to community schools, sponsors and management companies;

* Require better controls and checks on blended learning programs to make sure students are meeting the state minimum hours of instruction;

* Consider requiring a bond payable to the state from charter sponsors in case they fail.

“This report’s recommendations and critique of current law, based upon on the ground observations, should be given strong consideration as policymakers determine what changes should be made to Ohio charter school law,” said a statement from Chad Aldis, Ohio policy director for the Fordham Institute, a charter school think tank.

Sandy Theis, executive director of Progress Ohio, a liberal think tank, said taxpayers and students are getting hurt by poor performance and accountability at charter schools. “I think they should raise hell, call their lawmakers and tell them to fix it,” she said.

Funding based on head count

State funding for schools is based on student headcounts. Previously, public schools would conduct counts in the first week of October, which prompted Herculean efforts to get kids to show up that week. But that changed this academic year to a requirement that schools report their actual daily attendance throughout the year, said ODE spokesman John Charlton. Charter schools are required to report their attendance figures monthly and funding is pro-rated based on those reports, he said.

“We will take a serious look at this report and work with the auditor’s office, like we always do,” Charlton said.

In the 2012-13 academic year, 115,324 students attended 367 charter schools, which collected a combined $824.6 million in state funding, according to an ODE annual report on community schools.

Yost’s office has been heavily involved in school attendance issues for more than two years. It played a lead role in the investigation of an attendance scrubbing scandal in Columbus City Schools and two years ago released a 129-page audit that alerted ODE to possible attendance scrubbing at nine districts across the state.

Yost promised a thorough review of charter school attendance after reports by this newspaper and others about attendance irregularities at charter schools.

Lawmakers pledge change

Gov. John Kasich and Republican lawmakers announced that they’ll seek reforms to Ohio’s charter school laws to address problems with under performance and other issues.

Lehner said the reforms may be included in the state budget bill, due out next month, though she would prefer charter school changes be handled in stand alone legislation since it’s a complex topic.

“The real problem with Ohio’s charter (school) law is it’s 20 years old and it’s been re-done 19 times. It’s not cohesive,” Lehner said. “We need to make sure all the pieces are working together so we have the kind of accountability that taxpayers expect and we have the sort of performance that our children deserve.”

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