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Hearing officer rules ECOT owes state $60 million

By Jim SiegelThe Columbus Dispatch Published: May 10, 2017 6:01 PM

A state hearing officer has ruled against ECOT (the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow) in its appeal of the Ohio Department of Education's determination that it owes $60 million for enrollment that cannot be justified.

ECOT did not document its full enrollment, and thus was overpaid by $64 million last school year, hearing officer Lawrence Pratt wrote in his recommendation, which now goes to the state Board of Education. He said the board should use its power to collect $60 million of overpayment or deduct it from the school's future payments.

The Department of Education concluded that, based on log-in durations provided by ECOT, that it was able to justify only about 40 percent of its purported 2015-16 enrollment figures. That was based on the state-minimum requirement that students receive 920 hours of learning opportunities.

ECOT appealed, which was heard by a hearing officer. The school also sued the state, and that case is pending before the Franklin County Court of Appeals after ECOT lost at the trial court level.

Within the law, "it is clear that offering a learning opportunity includes the concept of student participation in that learning opportunity," Pratt wrote. It is not reasonable to "conclude that its purpose and intent is to authorize the payment of public dollars to schools to teach to what could be the equivalent of an empty classroom."

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Pratt said the department acted "lawfully and reasonably in applying durational data to the funding formula for the 2015-2016 academic year."

ECOT has argued that the department illegally created a new rule asking for log-in duration data, which was not required in prior attendance audits. The state's largest charter school also said the rule was illegally applied retroactively to the start of the last school year.

Pratt dismissed ECOT's retroactivity arguments.

"Because it is incumbent on an e-school to maintain documentation, including durational data, supporting its funding," the education department can decide funding is not supported when the school doesn't produce requested data.

The state Board of Education will decide at its meeting on June 13 whether to accept, reject or modify the recommendation.

jsiegel@dispatch.com


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