Ohio board to online charter school: Pay back disputed $60M

Ohio officials moved forward Monday with clawing back $60 million in disputed funding from one of the nation's largest online charter schools, a blow that the school called unfair but unsurprising and likely to be the subject of further consideration in court.

The State Board of Education's vote to have the Ohio Department of Education pursue that repayment from the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow is the latest development in their dispute over how attendance is tracked to determine funding.

ECOT has argued that the department improperly and retroactively changed those practices and that its original agreement with the state allowed logging attendance differently. The department concluded the e-school didn't have documentation of student log-ins to justify more than half of the nearly $109 million it got for the 2015-16 school year and should return that portion, and most members of the school board agreed.

"They've cheated the children and the taxpayers, and I just feel like they should go ahead and pay all that back," said member Cathye Flory, of Logan.

ECOT representatives, parents of its attendees, and other supporters addressed the board after the vote, pleading for reconsideration and praising ECOT's structure as beneficial for students less suited to brick-and-mortar schools for various reasons, such as health problems, disabilities or different preferences in learning environment. On the attendance-tracking issue, one commenter drew comparisons to the packed audience, questioning whether observers who were at times distracted by smartphones or laptops were really present for the board's meeting.

The board also heard from 14-year-old student Celiah Aker, of Medina, who argued that "if the student gets good grades and turns in the work, they should be considered to have attended that day" regardless of whether they spend a certain number of hours completing that work.

ECOT officials have suggested that a repayment demand could be potentially crippling for the cyber school. Spokesman Neil Clark said Monday that it would affect not just the school's reported 15,000 students and their families, but also about 1,300 Ohioans it employs.

Clark contends that the department's attendance-counting process contradicted state law. He said he expects the dispute will end up at the Ohio Supreme Court.

For now, the school awaits a decision from a state appeals court, where it has an appeal pending. ECOT had asked that court to block the school board from voting Monday on the repayment, but that request was denied.


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