23 November 2014

Much has been printed concerning the “data-scrubbing” scandal in the Columbus City Schools (CCS) district. Less has been revealed about the more blatant criminal theft and misappropriation of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) tutoring funds.

As a result of the Tuesday, January 27 release of State Auditor David Yost’s long-awaited report on student data tampering, four principals were immediately fired and Columbus Schools data czar Steve Tankovich may be facing possible criminal charges.

Yost also told reporters that former Columbus Schools Superintendent Gene Harris may have known about the illegal activity: “There’s a reasonable inference, at least based on our interviews that she was at least aware of what was going on.” Yost is sending the information he gathered in the data tampering scandal to the Columbus City Attorney’s, Franklin County Prosectutor’s and the U.S. Attorney’s offices.

Buried in the report on page 90 is a brief reference that federal law may have been violated: “In addition to violating federal laws under No Child Left Behind and potentially invoking the penalty provision of Revised Code Section 3301.0714(L)….”

In the “Background” section on page 12, the Yost report notes, “…the matters reported herein ultimately derived by CCS’s implementation of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.”

The Free Press had obtained an email dated June 24, 2013 from the Ohio Department of Education (ODE) to the United State Department of Education indicating that Columbus City Schools was in direct violation of NCLB’s supplemental educational tutoring guidelines. Specifically, the School District had failed to document expenditures of the tutoring funds, and had incorrect required numbers published on its District website.

A report from Ohio’s Office of Internal Audit to the Ohio Department of Education could not verify whether unspent funds from the tutoring program “…were spent on other allowable expenses related to SES [Supplemental Educational Services].” The reason is spelled out in the email.

“CCS did not provide accounting records outlining the specific expenditure prior to OIA completing its investigative report.”

Not only did Columbus City Schools fail to provide the records, the report notes that CCS also did not provide documentation that it met the criteria to spend unexpended amounts on other allowable activities or notify ODE that it had unused funds.

Public records indicate that, “OIA concluded that discrepancies existed between the number of students identified as enrolled on CCS’s website and the numbers reflected in SES session reports. For the last three years, the Free Press has investigated and documented numerous incidents of vendors being paid for tutoring students who were never tutored. Allegations of this criminal misuse of funds were given to Ohio Auditor David Yost.

In November 2013, Ashkir Ali pleaded guilty to falsifying student tutoring records and stealing $120,000 in tutoring payments from Columbus and South-Western City Schools. Much more money is missing. As the Free Press has previously outlined, many of the so-called tutoring centers existed only on paper or in shadowy clubs and unused storefronts in the inner city.

The OIA report states that CCS could not account for more than $1.5 million in tutoring funds between 2008-2009, over $1.6 million during 2009-2010, and nearly $2.5 million during the 2010-2011 academic year.

The first complaints about fraud in the tutoring system and similar accusations about misspent funds on students with disabilities were sent to the Columbus Division of Police. These are reported in a fax from Fraud and Forgery Unit Detective M. E. Shoemaker dated June 20, 2005. The complaints, which were forwarded to the U.S. Department of Education Inspector General by the Columbus Police were made by Kennedy Kent, former CCS vice principal and current Director of Parent Advocates for Students in Schools (PASS).

Two of the four allegations included by Detective Shoemaker were: “The spurious application of scanned/copied signature(s), of legal guardians(s) for children in the Columbus Public School System who have I.E.P.s [Individual Education Plan]” and a second charge indicated “The falsification of reports stating that a child had been receiving an I.E.P. when no such assistance was given.”

A 13-page letter from Kent to Thomas Utz, U.S. Department of Education Inspector General, prompted an FBI investigation and a rare audit of Columbus Public Schools. This was reflected in a September 11, 2006 headline in the Dispatch: “Federal government auditing Columbus Schools spending.”

A final report issued in March 2007 found that Columbus Schools had misspent nearly $6 million in federal funds. The report indicated that the District had misspent $3 million of the tutoring money. At the time, W. Carlton Weddington was chairing the Columbus Board of Education’s Audit and Accountability Committee. He later became a state representative and was convicted on corruption charges.

It was this initial audit that uncovered the much larger scandal now being revealed. The Columbus Police no longer accept complaints from Ms. Kent and have her classified as a “chronic complainer.”