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School Officials Respond to Auditor's Attendance Data Fraud Investigation

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Friday, October 5, 2012 at 1:30 PM

Ohio Auditor Dave Yost presents the findings of the first part of his investigation into attendance data fraud at Ohio schools at a press conference.

Yesterday, State Auditor Dave Yost released the findings of the first part of his investigation into schools' practice of rigging attendance data to boost their performance on state report cards.

He found evidence that at least five school districts have "scrubbed" their data: Campbell, Cleveland, Columbus, Marion, and Toledo City Schools.

Another 28 districts had errors in their attendance data, but not enough to be "pervasive."

Schools around the state responded immediately with celebratory shouts of innocence or objections to the auditor's report.

Cleveland schools CEO Eric Gordon, whose district was perhaps the most chided by the auditor, not only for evidence of scrubbing but also for shoddy record keeping that kept the auditor from completing his investigation, was quick to deny any malintent on part of his staff.

This is what Gordon said to our partner station WCPN:

“To suggest that there’s somehow intentional wrong doing particularly to earn the F’s and D’s that we’ve earned, it doesn’t pass the sniff test.  Why would we spend any energy working hard to game the system to get an F?  It doesn’t make sense.”

Gordon says the district’s attendance policy has been in place since 2001 and admits that it needs to be improved.

Area parents told WKYC they are concerned about the findings.

"It brings the integrity down for the district. Not just the school, but the district.  I pray that it isn't true," said Nakaii Jinnings, whose son attends Collinwood High School.

In Columbus, Superintendent Gene Harris quickly issued a similar denial of any intentional data fraud, and complained that schools had little heads up before the report was released to the public. This is what Harris told our partner station WOSU:

“As superintendent, I have never issued any kind of directive to make changes to student records that are not authorized,” says Harris.

But Harris too insisted that data recording instructions were vague and that more information was needed.

“We are now a little bit more than a month into the new school year. If we need to implement more changes, we need direction now,” Harris said. “Not six months from now.”

At Marion City, the auditor focused his investigation on a group of students who had been moved to Marion Digital Academy for non-attendance after missing four days of school in a quarter.

Marion City Schools Superintendent James Barney told the Marion Star that the district was not trying to boost test scores when it transferred those students to the Digital Academy:

“The letter did go to 15 kids, we acknowledge that, but it was based on non-attendance,” he said. “They did not attend. They lost credit for the quarter. We enrolled the students in a credit recovery program through the Marion Digital Academy. That would be scrubbing data if we were doing it to change test scores. We did it to help kids graduate. ... There was no intent to scrub. The intent was to help kids get credit.”

He said 31 other students cited by the state auditor’s office “moved completely on their own” to the digital academy.

Barney said the practice of moving to enroll students who’d violated attendance policy to the digital academy was stopped after the instance being investigated by the state.

In Toledo, where school officials self-reported their practice of data scrubbing after allegations of data fraud in Columbus  first surfaced, eight school were found by the auditor to have faulty data reporting practices. Superintendent Jerome Pecko told the Toledo Blade he put an end to those practices this summer:

TPS Superintendent Jerome Pecko said he voluntarily stopped the district's withdrawal policy in June after he read reports of similar practices in Columbus and when he learned TPS' policy might have been improper. He revealed the withdrawal practice to The Blade, and subsequently notified the Auditor's office. In a news conference on Thursday, Mr. Pecko said the district's decision to voluntarily report its own practices was part of a TPS effort to be transparent about its operations.

"TPS is engaged in several initiatives that are focused on improving educational opportunities for our students, including being as transparent as we can possibly be with the community," he said. "Our prompt action on this matter is an example of that commitment."

In Youngstown, Campbell City officials told the Vindicator they are doing their own detective work to find out just what happened.

Campbell Superintendent Tom Robey said the district is doing its own investigation into why the withdrawals were added retroactively.

He told the Vindicator on Thursday that “the school district looks at its data at that time to ensure its accuracy.”

“We’re taking this matter very seriously and working to try to resolve it,” Robey said.

And in the CIncinnati area, the three schools that were a part of the initial investigation all got clean bills of health, though several other districts are still being looked into.

Cincinnati Schools Superintendent Mary Ronan told the Cincinnati Enquirer she's using this as an opportunity to emphasize the need for stability:

The investigation revealed the complexities of tracking students in urban districts where children might change schools 12 times in 12 years. It prompted the Cincinnati district, which has 33,000 students, to put out a renewed call to the community about the importance of stability to a child’s education.

“How do we stabilize families? It’s a community issue,” said Superintendent Mary Ronan, who is bringing the issue up with other education and community advocates. “We can’t solve it by ourselves.”

WOUB in Athens reports that the initial phase of the investigation found southeast Ohio schools to be blemish free. The Courier in Findlay had similar good tidings for local school districts in that area.

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