State withholds more money from giant online school

The Ohio Department of Education will hold back 12 percent of its 2017-18 monthly payments to the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT), a statewide online school in the middle of an attendance controversy.

In a letter to ECOT, state Superintendent Paolo DeMaria cited the school’s own public statements that attendance is down 12 percent for the coming year, on top of the fact that in 2015-16, ECOT was unable to substantiate “anywhere near” the student participation levels it claimed.

The new 12 percent cut is on top of the state’s ongoing process to “claw back” $60 million that it says ECOT was overpaid for 2015-16. So ECOT goes from an $8.1 million monthly state payment, to $7.1 million after the 12 percent cut, then to $4.6 million per month after a $2.5 million per month clawback.

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Neil Clark, a spokesman for ECOT, could not immediately be reached for comment.

“As a responsible steward of public funds, the department has an obligation to take steps to ensure that ECOT is not receiving an overpayment of public funds,” DeMaria said in his letter to ECOT.

Auditor of State Dave Yost on July 20 had urged DeMaria to place a portion of ECOT’s future funding in escrow, because he believed the school was still being funded on inflated enrollment numbers.

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Like other Ohio schools, ECOT’s July, August and September state payments are based on last year’s enrollment, which the school stated at about 14,000. But the state has already determined that ECOT’s 2015-16 enrollment was closer to 6,000 full-time students than the 15,000 it claimed. ODE is still in the process of reviewing ECOT’s 2016-17 enrollment.

“This decision by Superintendent DeMaria and (ODE) is an excellent response to what appears to be an inflated request for student funding,” Yost said. “It’s clear the Superintendent shares my concern that any overfunding might be lost if ECOT closes – a prospect that was raised when ECOT’s executives said the school was in a ‘death spiral.’ I applaud this move to protect tax dollars.”

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