Ohio e-school cleared of allegations it failed to withdraw hundreds of truant students

Associated Press

An online charter school in Ohio has been cleared of allegations lodged in an anonymous email that it failed to withdraw hundreds of chronically truant students to pad its rolls.

Findings of an investigation of the 11,000-student Ohio Virtual Academy were received by the Ohio Department of Education on Wednesday.

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The Ohio Council of Community Schools, which oversees Ohio charter schools, launched the probe after a whistleblower emailed two state lawmakers a list of 398 students in May who appeared to be chronically truant yet were still enrolled in the school and therefore drawing state payments. State Reps. Bill Hayes and Teresa Fedor, the top Republican and Democrat, respectively, on the House Education Committee, referred the allegations to authorities.

State Auditor Dave Yost's office also received the referral. His office declined to comment on whether it's investigating.

The council's investigators found 12 of the students listed in the anonymous email remained enrolled beyond accurate withdrawal dates, in a range of 4 to 91 days. The school did receive overfunding for those students, "which will need to be corrected," the report said.

The council said a school collecting more state funds than it is due is serious business, but "given the low number of students and the very low percentage of funding this represents, it appears to be a result of user error rather than widespread misconduct with the intention to act fraudulently."

It recommended that the Virtual Academy make five process improvements to its truancy tracking process, including hand-correcting the errors before data for this school year are finalized in July.

A review of the email, which came from a Yahoo address under the name Jason Camburn, showed it contained impartial and possibly manipulated data. There is no Jason Camburn employed by the Ohio Virtual Academy.

Matt Norton, president of the school's board of trustees, said the source of the email is continuing to be investigated.

"The allegation against OHVA originally made by an unidentified source has been proven to be completely false," he said in a statement. "Our school said it was not true, and the exhaustive and detailed review by OCCS proved it was not true."

The allegations came in a highly charged environment surrounding Ohio's charter schools, which are vocally opposed by teachers' unions and their allies. Lawmakers of both parties have begun to concede that Ohio's charter school regulations are inadequate and some legislative changes have been made or are underway.

Besides hand-correcting errors, the council recommended that the Virtual Academy develop a new procedure for tracking consecutive hours missed and for clearly flagging when a student has hit the state mark for being withdrawn by being absent for 105 consecutive hours.

Although investigators said OHVA's truancy policy is more rigorous than the state requires, they recommended revisiting it.

"(T)he current system must also make it easy for OHVA staff and external monitoring parties (e.g. the sponsor, ODE) to clearly identify a student's consecutive and as well as cumulative hours missed over a period of time," the report said. "Tightening this process will help OHVA demonstrate compliance with the attendance law and avoid similar situations in the future."

The report also said the school may need to hire additional staff to ensure its truancy records are kept up to date.