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Court rules ECOT can't delay $60M payment to state

By CATHERINE CANDISKY GateHouse Ohio Media Published: June 8, 2017 4:00 AM

The Franklin County Court of Appeals today unanimously denied ECOT's request to block the state Board of Education from ordering the online school to repay $60 million in state aid for inflating its attendance numbers.

The court's refusal, issued by a three-judge panel without comment, to grant the injunction means the state board can make a final determination in the matter at its next monthly meeting, set for Monday, as planned.

The 19-member board can accept, reject or modify the findings of state hearing officer Lawrence Pratt, who recommended that the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow repay $60 million of roughly $108 million it received in state funding for the 2015-2016 school year.

Pratt concurred with a Department of Education review that found that based on computer log-in durations and offline documentation, many ECOT students had failed to meet the minimum 920 hours of learning opportunities required by the state.

ECOT reported 15,322 full-time students in the 2015-2016 school year; the education department verified 6,313, nearly 60 percent less.

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School officials dispute the finding, arguing that the state retroactively changed the way it verifies school enrollment and violated a 2003 agreement it had with the department. School officials say they will have to close the school if they are forced to repay the money.

In addition to its administrative appeal and effort to block the school board from acting, ECOT has asked the courts to intervene and lobbied state lawmakers for help, both so far unsuccessfully.

Franklin County Common Pleas Court Judge Jenifer French in September ruled in favor of the education department. That decision is under review by the Franklin County Court of Appeals -- separately from the injunction request -- with a ruling expected this summer. Regardless of that decision, the case is expected to end up before the Ohio Supreme Court.

ECOT founder Bill Lager and hundreds of students, parents and teachers rallied outside the Statehouse on May 9 to "save our school." School officials have been seeking changes to state law regarding how student academic growth is measured, how the minimum 920 hours of education is considered, and how schools are counted toward their sponsors' evaluations.

Applauding Wednesday's ruling, former Congresswoman Betty Sutton, a Democratic candidate for governor, said ECOT rips off taxpayers and fails to educate Ohio's students and urged the state Board of Education to accept a hearing examiner's ruling to recover $60 million in taxpayer money from ECOT.

"This sham, unaccountable school is a clear waste of taxpayer money and needs to be shut down," she said in a statement issued minutes after the ruling.


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