Though ECOT has been closed for more than four months, critics are now accusing the state’s then-largest online charter school of deliberately manipulating student data to defraud the state out of millions of dollars. The allegation against the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow is coming from a former employee, and is now part of a larger investigation.
Someone who used to work in the administrative offices ECOT told the state auditor’s office that school employees were asked to manipulate student data. That order came from top ECOT officials, according to Sandy Theis, a longtime critic of ECOT, who says she’s had meetings with this whistleblower.
“They openly talked about what they could do to get the highest number of attendance,” Theis said.
ECOT has had a long dispute with the state education department over its attendance and student participation numbers.
In 2016 the state found that ECOT only had about 40 percent of the full time students they said they had, and demanded the school repay about $60 million in funds.
According to Theis, the whistleblower says ECOT was trying to fabricate student participation in the next school year to boost it up to 80 percent of the full time students they originally reported.
“And even though ECOT was under fire for padding its attendance, the Department of Education took ECOT’s word with these new numbers,” Theis said. “When I saw that I thought this guy is on the money.”
The Department of Education concluded in February that ECOT must return another $20 million because the school was still getting money for students it didn’t have in the 2016-17 school year.
Theis says that if ECOT did manipulate the data, then it owes the state much more.
Laura McNamara, a former assistant principal at ECOT and a vocal supporter of the school, says she was in on several meetings with other ECOT officials when they were rolling out the new software that tracked student participation.
McNamara was asked if ECOT officials, at any point, asked her to manipulate or inflate data to make it look like students were doing more work than they were.
“Absolutely not, that never occurred,” she responded.
The software used by ECOT is known as ActivTrak. McNamara says there were meetings where ECOT officials were trying to figure out how to use ActivTrak to accurately follow student data. As McNamara puts it, counter to the whistleblower’s account, they had to make tweaks to make sure the software wasn’t over-counting hours.
“ECOT worked hard to ensure that there was not duplicate time ever, that if a student worked 12-1 they got credit for one hour as opposed to if they were in five programs from 12-1 that they would get five hours,” said McNamara.
McNamara points out that, because of the school’s closure, there’s no incentive for her to protect ECOT.
But Theis says McNamara wouldn’t know about the alleged scheme.
“This whistleblower was pretty high up and these were conversations between a small group of higher ups inside ECOT,” Theis said.
The former ECOT employee reported these allegations to the Ohio Department of Education and the auditor’s office. The latter says they are investigating the claim and they plan to report their findings by May 1.
The Ohio Department of Education did not offer a comment.
Former U.S. Attorney and current Ohio Attorney General candidate Steve Dettelbach has criticized Auditor Dave Yost of mishandling the whistleblower's complaint, and failing to immediately hand over the accusation to investigators.
ECOT is now under the direction of a special master of the court because of pending litigation. That special master had no comment about the accusation adding that these events would have occurred before he took over.