- 1 of 1 Photos | View More Photos
The State Board of Education today ordered online school giant ECOT to repay $60 million in state aid for grossly inflating its attendance figures.
The 19-member board voted 16-1 with one abstention to accept the findings of a Department of Education review, recently upheld by state hearing officer Lawrence Pratt, recommending that the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow repay more than half of the $108 million it received for the 2015-2016 school year.
The decision, ECOT officials say, is a death blow to the school; they claim it will have to close if forced to repay the money.
"I feel like they've cheated the children and the taxpayers and they should pay it back," said Cathye Flory, a board member from Logan.
Board President Tess Elshoff, citing board policy, refused to allow several ECOT parents and students who had waited nearly four hours to testify to address members before the vote. However, Elshoff allowed testimony after the vote.
School officials have filed a lawsuit disputing the findings and argue the issue ultimately will be resolved by the courts. They also said the board appeared to have changed its own policy by blocking public testimony prior to their vote.
"Any order (to repay the money) is irresponsible, premature and vindictive until court appeals are exhausted," said ECOT spokesman Neil Clark.
The education department's review 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.
ECOT officials have argued that the state retroactively changed the way it verifies school enrollment and violated a 2003 agreement it had with the department.
Last Wednesday, a three-judge panel of the Franklin County Court of Appeals unanimously denied ECOT's emergency injunction request to block today's board action without comment.
The appeals court is expected to rule this summer on ECOT's appeal of Franklin County Common Pleas Court Judge Jenifer French's decision last September upholding the education department's review. Regardless of the appeals court decision, the case is expected to end up before the Ohio Supreme Court.
ECOT also has lobbied state lawmakers for help, so far unsuccessfully.
The $60 million, when repaid, will be returned to state coffers and could then be distributed back to students' home school districts. Local districts have their state aid deducted when a student transfers to ECOT or any other charter school.