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ECOT paid out $588,000 to workers who signed non-disclosure agreements

Ohio’s largest online public charter school, the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, required employees facing lay off to sign non-disclosure agreements if they wanted to receive severance pay, records show.

Public records obtained by two watchdog organizations show ECOT paid out $588,000 in taxpayer-funded “hush money” to 201 employees in 2017.

Common Cause Ohio and Innovation Ohio, two liberal leaning non-profits, requested records after a whistle blower declined to sign the non-disclosure agreement, which included a “non-disparagement” clause.

Related: Dems want to pin ECOT blame on GOP

“Public funds should never be used to pay hush money,’’ said Common Cause Ohio Executive Director Catherine Turcer. “A severance package is supposed to give employees a cushion when they leave – not hide problems from elected officials, administrators, the press and the public.’’

ECOT shut down in January, forcing 12,000 students to scramble to enroll in other schools. ECOT, founded in 2000, is fighting with the state Department of Education over its enrollment figures, on which state funding is based. The state is trying to recover $80-million in over payments to made to ECOT. The company finished auctioning off its assets and Columbus headquarters this week.

Stephen Dyer, a former Democratic lawmaker and an education fellow at Innovation Ohio, said the non-disclosure and non-disparagement agreements in exchange for severance pay “smacks of a major cover up.”

Turcer add that it is “incredibly sad that so much money was wasted and didn’t benefit children.”

Related: Auditor on ECOT school case: ‘I believe this may rise to a criminal act’

The “severance and release agreement” shows employees that signed were entitled to two weeks of pay and payment for 25-percent of their accrued and unused sick time and 75-percent for accrued and unused leave time.

“You agree that you have not and will not make statements to anyone that are in any way disparaging or negative toward ECOT, including disparaging remarks about individuals associated with ECOT or the services it provides,” the agreements say.

“I think generally, if you were to ask a group of lawyers, is non-disclosure/non-disparagement language considered boilerplate in a settlement, the answer’s going to be yes,” Dayton Public Schools attorney Jyllian Bradshaw said. “But it matters what type of settlement.”

The ECOT staff who were laid off were not union-represented, so they signed individual agreements. Bradshaw said rank-and-file employees laid off by a public school district most often are represented by a collective bargaining agreement that spells out the terms of the separation, so there aren’t individual legal documents for them to sign spelling out terms.

Bradshaw confirmed when DPS has done settlement agreements with very high-ranking staff, like recent Superintendent Rhonda Corr, they’ve included brief non-disclosure, non-disparagement language.

Staff writer Jeremy Kelley contributed to this report.

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