Ohio auditor questions Cleveland, 4 other school district policies

CMSD CEO: improvements needed, but we don't cheat

COLUMBUS, Ohio - The state's auditor says five Ohio school districts have used questionable attendance policies and practices, putting them at a higher risk for scrubbing attendance data to improve their school report cards.

The districts are Cleveland, Columbus, Toledo, Marion and Campbell. Scrubbing is the practice of removing students from enrollment without lawful reason.

State Auditor Dave Yost released the preliminary findings Thursday as part of his investigation into potentially irregular attendance and enrollment practices.

The data was collected from a sampling of more than 100 school buildings that experienced high withdrawal rates -- or about 3 percent of Ohio's 3,688 public schools.

Yost said some schools in the five districts withdrew students based on a pattern of absences, which could have been influenced by lower test scores, without proper documentation.

CMSD CEO Eric Gordon said the report did not produce evidence that these practices were implemented to improve state report card ratings, and he'll challenge any suggestion that tries to point the finger otherwise.

"The low performance of the 15 schools identified by the auditor do not at all support the state's concerns that Cleveland used these practices for the purpose of improving report card ratings," said Gordon. "The low performance of these identified schools, including nine in Academic Emergency, three in Academic Watch, and a school not even eligible for a state rating, obviously reaped no benefit for the schools or for CMSD."

After receiving a preliminary report sent to districts on Oct. 2, CMSD officials requested verification of data in the report, released publicly by the Auditor of State on Oct. 4 in a morning news conference.

Gordon said he has yet to get answers to questions raised to auditors about numbers used in the interim report. The CEO remains concerned about the potential use of inaccurate data obtained from the Ohio Department of Education, which appears, he said, to be used in crafting potential findings for Cleveland and for other Ohio school districts.

"The data cited for Cleveland says 19,633 students (34.4 percent) and 12,235 tested students (21.4 percent) "rolled-up" to the state, which would mean our student population would have had to have been between 57,072 and 57,173 students in 2010 through 2011," said Gordon. "Our verified enrollment, as reported by the State Auditor in our FY2011 Comprehensive Annual Financial Report was 43,202."

Gordon has sought clarification, including whether auditors had inadvertently included data for all Cleveland students, including those enrolled in more than 65 charter schools across the city.

Gordon said the numbers used by State auditors also don't match the End of Year report submitted to the Ohio Department of Education for the 2010-11 school year.

"We fully opened our records and provided every document requested during the review," said Gordon.

Although Gordon expressed concerns about the state's numbers, he said he fully acknowledges that improvements are needed in the district's current attendance and record keeping policies and in its enrollment and withdrawal procedures.

"The state-wide review sheds light on the complexity of attendance reporting, especially in high-mobility districts, and we are hopeful that it will lead to improved practices at the state and local level," said Gordon. "There is no question that improvements are needed in our own practices. That does not mean we cheat."

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