Non-stop investigations fuel charter school uncertainty

At its high point, more than 1,000 students clamored through the halls of the sprawling charter school building in west Dayton. Last Thursday, a handful of prospective auction bidders quietly sized up rows of desks, piles of calculators and stacks of books, weighing their worth.

An online auction a day later cleared the building for its new tenant: the Watkins Academy, a charter school with only 75 students last year. Its director currently owes the state $541 because of questionable debit card purchases.

The school building on Dayton-Liberty Road is a monument to the uncertain state of charter schools here and across Ohio.

The state department of education has joined several area charter schools in the mire of controversy as a bill to increase oversight of charters is stalled in the General Assembly, and local charter officials face a criminal probe over alleged fraud totaling $1.2 million.

“We are taking a beating in the media, and we deserve it,” began a letter sent last week to Ohio Department of Education Superintendent Richard Ross by seven Democratic members of the state’s 19-member school board.

The letter called Ross a “a prime suspect” in the recently unearthed practice of excluding certain types of schools from charter school sponsor ratings, which skewed the numbers.

Top ODE official David Hansen resigned after admitting to the practice. Ross suspended sponsor ratings and promised to bring in an outside panel to review the rating system. But the seven members aren’t content to let Ross steer the investigation.

“We already know that the way the department investigates complaints against charters is refer it to sponsors and call that an investigation,” said A.J. Wagner, a school board member from Dayton.

“We want a genuine investigation from an outside party who can tell us if there really are issues there with charter schools or not.”

Ohio Gov. John Kasich called the letter “political,” while left-leaning groups pointed out that Hansen’s wife was Kasich’s presidential campaign manager.

State school board president Tom Gunlock, a Republican from Centerville, said the board should give Ross a chance to look into what happened and determine if Hansen acted alone.

“No matter what we do there is always the possibility that somebody will overstep their authority and do something not appropriate,” he said. “The person who did this overstepped their authority and paid a tremendous price for it because he no longer works for the department.”

E-schools not counted

A new law required ODE to start rating charter school authorizers this year, and base the ratings on how their schools perform.

When questioned by the school board, Hansen said he didn’t include online schools or dropout recovery schools because he didn’t think it was fair to sponsors.

Under Ohio law, every charter school has a sponsor, or authorizer, which monitors compliance with laws and regulations. In exchange, the sponsors are paid by the schools. The largest sponsors oversee more than 50 schools, including e-schools and dropout recovery schools.

The Educational Service Center of Lake Erie West, for example, authorizes 59 schools across the state with a total student population of 31,956. More than 14,500 of those students are enrolled in the Educational Classroom of Tomorrow online school.

ECOT students include 484 from Dayton, 104 from Huber Heights, 179 from Hamilton, 102 from Middletown and 71 from Springfield, according to state payment reports.

Excluding ECOT’s “F” grades could improve the state’s rating of ESC of Lake Erie West.

That’s what happened with the state’s second-largest online school, Ohio Virtual Academy, which has 12,911 students across Ohio. This includes 193 in Dayton, 87 in Hamilton, 76 in Middletown and 74 in Springfield.

Ohio Virtual Academy’s sponsor, the Ohio Council of Community Schools, earned an “exemplary” rating from the state despite the Ohio Virtual Academy’s failing grades.

Ohio Virtual Academy and ECOT are both operated by major Republican political donors.

Since Hansen’s rating system was first exposed by the Cleveland Plain-Dealer, the Ohio Department of Education has suspended all sponsor ratings.

“In response to the concerns that have been raised and our own preliminary review, we are retracting the evaluations that have been completed so far and will be seeking input from independent experts to make sure the methodology for evaluating all sponsors, including those already evaluated, is credible, accurate, and compliant,” ODE spokesman Mike Perona said in a statement.

Meanwhile, pending before the Ohio House is a bill that would raise the stakes of these ratings.

A reform bill passed the state Senate unanimously in June and is likely headed to conference committee after the summer recess. It would give top-rated charter school sponsors more freedom to operate and money they could use for infrastructure. It would also create a “poor” rating and prohibit sponsors given that label from authorizing new schools.

$1.2M in alleged fraud

The state yanked the ratings given already, including those for local sponsors. The Dayton-based Thomas B. Fordham Foundation previously received an “exemplary” rating. Kids Count of Dayton, however, earned an “ineffective” rating and was told it must improve.

Kids Count was the sponsor of the General Chappie James Leadership Academy, which was accused by a state audit in June of padding its attendance numbers and defrauding the state out of nearly $1.2 million.

Former school superintendent Kecia Williams was slapped with a finding for recovery, ordering her to pay back the money. The audit was referred for a criminal investigation.

Williams, who has not been charged, declined to comment when contacted last week. She referred questions to her attorney, Steven Brown, who said his client looks forward to telling her side of the story.

“Ms. Williams thinks it can all be explained,” he said.

Kids Count Director Ethel Harris issued a statement noting that her agency prevented the school from opening in fall 2014.

“The state of Ohio has rigorous standards and procedures to ensure that public funding is properly spent for the education of our state’s children,” the statement said. “Kids Count follows these procedures.”

Kids Count currently sponsors six schools in Cleveland, Cincinnati and the Dayton area. Locally this includes the Miami Valley Academies, which earned a “B” in its most recent value-added score.

Dayton School Board member Nancy Nerny said the uncertainty of which schools will be open from year to year adds to the transiency many of her district’s students already struggle with.

“The worst effect of the charter schools for us is that probably 50 percent of our kids have bounced from one school to another to another because the state says choice is good,” she said.

‘Moving pretty quickly’

Fordham sponsors 11 schools across the state, all of which were included in its “exemplary” rating.

This includes the Dayton Leadership Academy, which scored an “F” in its most recent value-added rating. The school’s executive director, T.J. Wallace, says the grade is based on a three-year average and the school has showed a tremendous turnaround since he took over two years ago.

“We’re very committed and enrollment is looking good,” he said.

DLA has more than 400 students at its Riverview Avenue school. A decade ago, it had more than 2,000 students at its two Dayton schools, including the Dayton-Liberty building that recently sold.

Kathryn Mullen Upton, vice president for sponsorship and Dayton initiatives with Fordham, said the academies were some of the first charters to open in Dayton and their enrollment sagged as the number of schools exploded.

“Dayton at one point was second only to post-Katrina New Orleans in terms of number of charter schools,” she said.

The two schools were consolidated two years ago, and a deal recently was finalized to sell the old Dayton-Liberty campus to the Watkins Academy. Watkins was incorporated in 2012 and until now operated out of the fourth floor of a downtown office building.

It received $583,540 from the state last year to teach 74 kids. Superintendent Bobbi Watkins-Tyree said the school bought advertising on radio and television stations and hope to reach 200 students next year.

“We’re moving pretty quickly,” she said, looking around at the exposed structural supports and stripped walls in the 19,000-square-foot building. A milk crate near the front door held baggies of candy labeled with “NOW ENROLLING Kdg.-5th”.

The first-ever state audit of Watkins Academy, released in June, cited the school for poor controls over purchasing procedures, including $10,848 without supporting documentation. The audit singled out $541 in debit card transactions by Watkins herself at places such as Family Dollar, McDonald’s and Shell gas stations.

“Without any documentation, we don’t know whether this was a personal shopping trip or a proper public purpose,” said state auditor Dave Yost. “When you’re spending other people’s money, you’ve got to do the paperwork.”

Watkins Academy is directly sponsored by ODE. When asked why the state didn’t catch these problems, ODE officials said the responsibility of day-to-day monitoring rested with the governing board and treasurer.

“When we received the audit letter, we reviewed the matter with the fiscal officer and it was agreed that the local administrator would either document the spending or repay the amount personally,” said ODE spokesman Michael Sponhour.

“In addition, we mandated additional training for the governing board which was conducted by their attorney. We are committed to giving school management the assistance they need to ensure that every dollar is spent to benefit students as required by law.”

Watkins wouldn’t comment on the audit, referring questions to her attorney, Edmund Brown.

“We believe the supporting documents exist for those findings,” he said. “We are in the process of identifying that and providing that to the (state).”

Brown’s Columbus-based practice specializes in charter school compliance. He said the main thing lacking from all of the talk of sponsor accountability and charter school oversight is properly training sponsors and school administrators in the law.

“For me, one of the biggest things that should be required is sponsor training,” he said. “The only way these individuals find out they did something wrong is when the auditor’s office comes in and audits them and issues a finding for recovery.”

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