Education officials in Ohio are reviewing a whistleblower’s allegations that a now-defunct online charter school manipulated its attendance numbers so it could hold onto millions of dollars in state overpayments.
The Associated Press reports that a former technology officer of the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT), once the state’s largest online charter school, told Ohio Department of Education regulators that school officials ordered staff to inflate student attendance records with ActivTrak software it started using after the state demanded that it return $60 million in overpayments for the 2015-2016 school year.
The whistleblower also stated his concerns about the alleged fraud to Ohio Auditor Dave Yost, who is using the information in an audit of ECOT’s finances, the AP reported.
The whistleblower told the AP that he first voiced his concern about the misconduct in an Aug. 3 email to state officials just ahead of its release of ECOT’s 2017 attendance review. The whistleblower spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity out of fear of damaging his professional reputation.
The whistleblower told the AP that before he left the school in July, he attended meetings in which ECOT officials ordered staff to manipulate ActivTrak data to meet its desired outcomes in regard to public funding.
“They would put a model in place, they would look at what it produced, then they would say, ‘Well, this isn’t enough time, so let’s go back and tweak it a little here and tweak it a little there,’” the whistleblower told the AP.
The Ohio DOE assessed another $19 million penalty for 2016-2017. ECOT shut down abruptly in January, less than half a year after the whistleblower first voiced complaints about the alleged fraud.
Other school employees the AP contacted about the allegations have refused to speak out.
The AP notes that ECOT required its staff to sign non-disclosure agreements. Two Ohio government watchdog groups — Common Cause Ohio and Innovation Ohio — are currently looking into whether ECOT used taxpayer money to keep its employees from speaking out about financial fraud at the school.
The whistleblower who alerted state officials to the alleged data manipulation at ECOT refused to sign a non-disclosure agreement, a decision that cost him his severance package, the AP reported.
State Sen. Joe Schiavoni, a Democratic gubernatorial candidate, and running mate Stephanie Dodd, a member of Ohio’s state school board, are pushing for a criminal investigation into the whistleblower’s allegations, according to the AP.