News Continues to Seep Out About How ECOT Cheated Ohio Taxpayers

Presumably now that yesterday’s primary election has occurred, Ohio State Auditor Dave Yost will release his long-awaited audit of the now-defunct, mega-online-charter school, the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT).  In yesterday’s primary election, Yost ran unopposed for the Republican nomination for Attorney General, and Mike DeWine, the current Attorney General, became the Republican nominee for Governor. Some time will pass before the November general election—time perhaps for voters to forget about what they learn in the audit about the way Ohio’s trifecta (House, Senate, Governor) Republican supermajority has handled the outrageous ECOT scandal.

Here are some of the revelations about ECOT that have recently seeped out.

We learned on Monday that, when ECOT was caught using a quarter of a million tax dollars to pay for television ads attacking the Ohio Department of Education for trying to crack down on ECOT for grossly inflating its attendance figures, ECOT quickly had one of its for-profit contractors pay the bill. Of course, ECOT’s only source of revenue—and the only source of revenue for the privately held for-profit corporations that managed ECOT and the communications company that handled its public relations—was the tax money paid to the school from the state as part of the school’s per-pupil tuition.

The attack ads represented an illegal use of tax dollars. As the Columbus Dispatch‘s Jim Siegel reports, “Although charter schools can legally run ads in an effort to recruit students, no public school—charter or traditional—is allowed to spend taxpayer money on political–type ads….”  You will remember that ECOT launched the television advertising campaign after the state began trying to claw back $60 million the state calculated it had overpaid ECOT in the 2015-16 school year because the online school had over-reported its enrollment by 60 percent. Here is how Siegel characterizes the television ads : “ECOT took to the airwaves, launching a string of television ads attacking the Department of Education, urging it to keep ECOT open and accusing it of wanting to end school choice and not caring about ECOT students.”

Siegel describes the transaction: “Using private companies owned by Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow school founder Bill Lager, plus a media-production company run by his daughter, ECOT tried to hide the source of payment for nearly $250,000 worth of TV attack ads aimed at the Ohio Department of Education.  That is the conclusion reached by the office of state Auditor Dave Yost, who, in a draft finding for recovery obtained by The Dispatch, lays out details of a plan designed to avoid the appearance that ECOT illegally used taxpayer money to pay for political ads.  As a result, Yost is ordering a pair of Lager’s ECOT-affiliated for-profit companies, Altair Learning Management and IQ Innovations, along with Third Wave Communications, where Lager’s daughter Jessica Harris is an owner, to repay ECOT a total of nearly $250,000 for illegally spending public money.”

ECOT was shut down by its sponsor, the Educational Service Center of Lake Erie West, in January, and a receiver is using the school’s assets to repay ECOT’S creditors including the state, which has not yet been able to recapture the tens of millions of tax dollars overpaid to ECOT for the 2015-16 and 2016-17 school years alone.

We learned this week that an auction has been scheduled for Friday.  Among the items scheduled to be auctioned off were ECOT’s administrative computers, although the Dispatch reported late yesterday that the Columbus City attorney is trying to block the sale of computers, in case they may contain evidence needed in a future trial.  Earlier in the week, State Auditor Dave Yost sent investigators to copy data from the computers to be kept potentially as evidence if criminal charges are ultimately filed against the school and William Lager, who owns Altair Management and IQ Innovations, the for-profit operators of the school.  The Plain Dealer‘s Jackie Borchardt reported:  “A Franklin County judge last week ordered Ohio Auditor Dave Yost to issue a subpoena for the information. A Yost spokesman confirmed Monday that the unit that deals with cyber technology and fraud was onsite ‘mirroring’ data from computers and information ahead of the sale.”

Last week we learned that ECOT paid hush money as severance bonuses to several ECOT employees if they would sign a non-disclosure agreement promising not to compromise ECOT by sharing information that might be used to prove that the school was intentionally fraudulent in its over-reporting of student enrollment.  Ohio’s Plunderbund reported: “Stormy Daniels isn’t the only one who has been offered hush money.  Some past employees of ECOT were offered some, too…. News that several past employees were offered public money in exchange for agreeing not to disparage the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT) follows an Associated Press story that quoted a whistleblower saying the Department of Education was informed last August that ECOT manipulated software to garner unearned money from the state… The whistleblower turned down two weeks of severance pay by refusing to sign the agreement—a decision that freed him to tell the public about ECOT’s attendance padding.”

WCMH-TV reporter Jason Aubry adds: “According to Sandy Theis, a member of Ohio’s Charter School Accountability Project, six individuals have confirmed with her they were provided non-disclosure agreements… to sign when they parted ways with the charter school.  At least two of the six individuals signed the NDA as part of their severance package where they were provided some money as part of a layoff.”

The Toledo Blade recently editorialized about the ECOT scandal: “The Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, an online charter school now shuttered, is becoming a millstone around Republican necks this election year. And rightly so. The online school, chartered for nearly the last two decades in Lucas County but based in Franklin County, was forced into bankruptcy when state officials, after dragging their feet for years, went after ECOT’s exaggerated attendance claims… It sits in the lap of Republicans who accepted large donations from ECOT’s founder, William Lager, and then looked the other way for years as ECOT’s founder and chief vendor became rich with the state’s per-pupil funds… From the start, anyone could have known that an online charter school would not require the same level of per-pupil reimbursement that a regular bricks-and-mortar school would need.  And yet, ECOT received that money, and Ohio’s lawmakers went along with this baloney… The state of Ohio failed miserably…  and the children of Ohio are the victims.”

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ECOT’s Sponsor Asks Judge to Appoint Receiver for the School, But ECOT Presents Plan to Keep Going

Well… today is the day the Educational Service Center of Lake Erie West has said it will terminate its sponsorship and end the operation of Ohio’s giant, notorious online charter school scam, the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow.

Last night the Columbus Dispatch reported that ECOT held an emergency board meeting yesterday, after which the school announced it had made a “final offer” to the Ohio Department of Education, that would include an agreement that William Lager, ECOT’s founder, would step down from Altair Learning, the private company he owns that manages ECOT. The plan would also, according to the Dispatch, “allow the state to continue recouping $80 million in overpayments of state aid,” and would allow the school to remain open through graduation this spring. Brittny Pierson, ECOT’s superintendent announced: “While we would have liked to remain open indefinitely, it’s clear the department will not accept a payback plan that would allow for that. Thus, we are left fighting to remain open until the end of the year to allow our students the opportunity to finish their school year….”

A final decision about the school’s future will perhaps be decided late this afternoon at a board meeting of the Educational Service Center of Lake Erie West, ECOT’s sponsor.

A Plain Dealer report added further detail about the school’s proposal:  if the Ohio Department of Education accepts the school’s offer, William Lager will no longer have any operational control of Altair Management, and no further fees will be paid to Altair Management. Neil Clark, ECOT’s lobbyist and spokesperson is quoted: “In negotiations with the Department, it became clear that they wanted concessions from Bill Lager personally… So we gave them what they wanted in order to stay open a few more months and not close our doors on our students suddenly.”

ECOT is one of the nation’s largest online schools, and a school with a terrible academic record along with the financial scam that has dominated its operation. Yesterday an Associated Press wire story described the possible closure of ECOT is a tragedy: “Many of the roughly 12,000 students turned to the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow because of illnesses, disabilities, bullying or other struggles that made traditional school environments challenging or impossible.  The uncertainty over the school’s future amid a dispute with the state has added adversity as students, parents and teachers try to make backup plans halfway through the school year… The state of Ohio says ECOT didn’t sufficiently document student participation, but ECOT says officials wrongly changed criteria to adjust funding.”

But before you worry too much about the potential closure of the school, consider a contrasting point of view in this in-depth May 2016 report from Motoko Rich in the NY Times:  “(M)ore students drop out of the Electronic Classroom or fail to finish high school within four years than at any other school in the country… For every 100 students who graduate on time, 80 do not… When students enroll in the Electronic Classroom or in other online charters, a proportion of the state money allotted for each pupil is redirected from traditional school districts to the cyberschools. At the Electronic Classroom, which Mr. Lager founded in 2000, the money has been used to help enrich for-profit companies he leads. Those companies provide school services, including instructional materials and public relations.”  Rich quoted Ohio State Senator Peggy Lehner, a Republican who chairs the Senate Education Committee: “When you take on a difficult student, you’re basically saying, ‘We feel that our model can help this child be successful.’… And if you can’t help them be successful, at some point you have to say your model isn’t working, and if your model is not working, perhaps public dollars shouldn’t be going to pay for it.”

People in-the-know in Columbus have warned ECOT’s critics not to be overly hopeful about ECOT’s pending demise.  They have suggested that Bill Lager is so powerful that he’ll pull some kind of rabbit out of a hat. Lager is ECOT’s founder and the owner of the privately held, for-profit corporations that oversee ECOT’s operations (Altair Management) and create its online curriculum (IQ Innovations).

The two companies have been paid hundreds of millions in tax dollars since the school opened in 2000. Over that time, the state and local school districts have together paid ECOT $1 billion in per-pupil reimbursements for the students ECOT has claimed it has served. ECOT has insisted that a 2003 agreement meant it had only to document the school was providing 920 hours of curriculum annually for the students it has claimed without providing evidence they were logging in to use the materials.

Although many have predicted William Lager will still find a way to save ECOT, a Tuesday evening report by the Columbus Dispatch‘s Catherine Candisky made ECOT’s end appear increasingly likely. On Tuesday, ECOT’s sponsor, the Educational Service Center of Lake Erie West asked a Franklin County judge to appoint a receiver to take over the school. Judge Michael Holbrook has scheduled a hearing tomorrow in Franklin County Common Pleas Court.

In the affidavit filed with the court, ECOT’s sponsoring agency declared: “Given the lack of bond of the fiscal officer and ECOT’s financial position, there are no remedies ECOT will propose that will be adequate to Educational Service Center and it intends to suspend the operation of ECOT as soon as permitted.” “Because of requirements imposed on ECOT and the necessity to transition ECOT’s students to new schools forthwith, it is imperative that a receiver be immediately appointed to take control of ECOT, including its operations, records, assets and finances. If a receiver is not immediately appointed, it is unlikely ECOT will be able to comply with the statutory requirements, causing irreparable harm to ECOT’s ability to comply with winding up requirements.”

Apryl Morin, Director of Community Schools for the Educational Service Center of Lake Erie West, is reported to have explained: “State law… allows a sponsor to suspend operations of a community school and terminate its contract if the school fails to meet generally accepted standards of fiscal management, or violates terms of the contract or state or federal laws.” Under Ohio law, “community school” is the term the state uses for what is known elsewhere as a “charter school.”

Whether or not the school is permitted to remain open through the spring semester, what will undoubtedly drag on will be fighting about money paid to ECOT for students the school said were enrolled.  ECOT has not been able to document the attendance of thousands of students because the school has refused to maintain comprehensive log-in data. A 2015 law by which the legislature increased oversight of charter schools made it possible—beginning that year—for the state to demand documentation of student participation and to begin clawing back $60 million the state says was overpaid to ECOT for the 2015-16 school year and $20 million more for the 2016-17 school year.  In 2015, the state has alleged, ECOT over-reported its enrollment by nearly 60 percent.

A big question in Ohio is whether Lager can protect the money already paid to his private companies and thereby protect his personal profits.  In a second Dispatch story late Tuesday, Jim Siegel reported that Steve Dettelbach, the Democratic candidate for Ohio Attorney General and formerly the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Ohio, says the Ohio Attorney General must go after Lager’s companies: “There clearly, in this case, are facts that seem on their face to indicate there was misrepresentation, deceit and fraud.”

Last July, Dave Yost, Ohio’s state auditor and currently the Republican candidate for Ohio Attorney General, began escrowing $2.5 million every month from the funds being paid by the state for ECOT’s 2017-2018 operations because Yost said he worried about the eventuality we are watching this week: that ECOT would face bankruptcy and be let off the hook for paying back the money it is expected to return to state coffers.  Yost has said he believes ECOT should be held accountable, and his comments to the Dispatch indicate that he believes Lager may unscrupulously have used his private corporations “to limit the liability that stems from doing business.” Yost has expressed hope for recovering some if the money because, he explains, in 2008 the Ohio Supreme Court expanded the standard by which corporations can be held accountable.

The Dispatch reported that according to State Auditor Yost, “The state cannot go after the money it is owed until the Oho Supreme Court rules in ECOT’s ongoing legal challenge of the Education Department’s actions.”  Oral arguments in the case are scheduled for February 13. Yost added that based on a series of lower-court decisions against ECOT, he does not expect the Ohio Supreme Court to rule in ECOT’s favor.  “A very significant portion of the money that passed through ECOT ended up with Bill Lager… The Supreme Court ruling allows at least the potential for him to be personally liable for it.”

We’ll see if Bill Lager is ever held fully accountable. It will be a surprise if the state of Ohio and the local school districts from which charter tuition for ECOT has been extracted ever see much of the money.  The state’s attempt to recapture and protect tax dollars—at a rate of $2.5 million escrowed every month, has been going on for only six or seven months, which adds up to less than $20 million.

It is time Ohio’s taxpayers stop generating private profits for Bill Lager via the online Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow. (This blog has tracked the ECOT scandal here.)

Will Ohio’s Giant Online ECOT Charter School Close Suddenly Day After Tomorrow?

Imagine everybody’s surprise when, at 7:53 PM last Wednesday night, reporters from the Columbus Dispatch announced that Ohio’s notorious Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT) will likely be put out of business on Thursday, January 18th.  ECOT’s final legal appeal of the state’s attempt to claw back $60 million in tax dollars overpaid to ECOT for the 2015-16 school year and another $20 million for the 2016-17 school year is still scheduled on February 13 for oral arguments before the Ohio Supreme Court.

Here is what we learned last Wednesday night from Dispatch reporters Catherine Candisky and Jim Siegel: “The Educational Service Center of Lake Erie West, ECOT’s long-time sponsor, informed school officials this week that it has initiated proceedings to suspend ECOT operations ‘at or near the end of the current semester’ and terminate its sponsorship contract… ECOT’s semester ends next Thursday, Jan. 18.”  “ECOT, a statewide online school opened in 2000, has become a lightning rod for controversy over the past two years, with a spotlight on its poor academic performance, nearly $200 million in payments to companies run by school founder Bill Lager, plus a highly publicized fight with the state over its inability to verify its enrollment largely through log-in data.”

Candisky and Siegel also report that last Wednesday, a spokesperson for the Educational Service Center of Lake Erie West also announced that due to the school’s financial problems, as of February, ECOT is unable to secure a bond for its fiscal officer. A bonded fiscal officer is a requirement in Ohio for the operation of a charter school.

ECOT has been charging the state a per-pupil fee for educating what it said in 2015-2016 were 15,000 students—a count ECOT reduced to 12,000 students for 2016-2017. But the school has never been able to document that thousands of students have been regularly logging onto their computers. In its own defense, ECOT has claimed the state requires it only to provide 920 hours of curriculum per year but not to prove that its students are actually using the curriculum.

Ohio’s legislature toughened the law in 2015, but ECOT has claimed it is protected by an earlier 2003 policy.  While the Ohio Department of Education alleges the school has been inflating its attendance numbers for years to collect millions of tax dollars, passage of the 2015 law finally allowed the state to crack down.  That is why the state’s attempted clawback of dollars overpaid to ECOT—$60 million for 2015-16 and $20 million for 2016-17—dates back only for the past two school years.

Then there are the enormous private profits being sucked out of the ECOT enterprise. Bill Lager, ECOT’s founder, privately owns the two companies that create ECOT’s online curriculum (IQ Innovations) and operate the school (Altair Management).  Lager contributes lavishly to political campaigns of the Republicans who make up a super-majority in the Ohio legislature tasked with regulating charter schools and to the political campaigns of the elected members of the Ohio Supreme Court, scheduled to hear the ECOT appeal in mid-February.

The state of Ohio has been reducing its contributions to ECOT by $2.5 million each month and escrowing the money while awaiting the school’s appeal through the court process. Ohio’s auditor Dave Yost has worried that if ECOT eventually declares bankruptcy, the public should protect its right to collect at least some of the money ECOT has stolen.

Many Ohioans are, like me, probably wondering whether it can possibly be true that ECOT might be shut down. It has seemed the ECOT scam will never be resolved due to the power of Bill Lager’s money in Columbus.

The first question is about sponsor hopping. In the past, when sponsors have shut down shoddy charter schools, the charter school’s board has simply found another state-approved sponsor who will take a chance on the school. But apparently that will be difficult for ECOT.  The Thomas Fordham Institute explains that Ohio House Bill 2, passed in 2015 to regulate charter schools, prohibits sponsor hopping for schools being shut down unless “the school finds a new sponsor rated effective or better, hasn’t switched sponsors in the past, and gains approval from the Ohio Department of Education.”  In a follow-up report, Candisky and Siegel add: “A modification to the contract between Lake Erie West and ECOT signed in April 2017 says if the school is not renewed due to lack of fiscal management, the school must close permanently and ‘the school shall not enter into a contract with any other sponsor.'”

The Ohio Department of Education resolved a second potential question about the school’s future as well last Thursday. Not only are ECOT’s finances in trouble, but also its academic rating has been dismal.  To improve its academic standing—not by improving the way ECOT serves its students but instead by lowering the public’s expectations for the school—ECOT had applied to become what Ohio classes as a “dropout recovery school.”  The state demands less academically of such schools that serve primarily older students who may be on the verge of dropping out of school or have already done so.  But, Candisky and Siegel report: “Adding to ECOT’s troubles, the Department of Education informed the school Thursday that it does not qualify as a dropout recovery school. ECOT was seeking the designation, which would have significantly lowered its academic requirements on the school’s annual report card. The department said 49.4 percent of ECOT students are between the ages of 16 and 21. State law requires a dropout school to be above 50 percent.”

The third and biggest question is political. Will the legislature find a way to save ECOT?  Candisky and Siegel consider this question in the context of what ECOT has cost Ohio taxpayers: “The school has received about $1 billion in tax dollars since it opened in 2000.” Then they quote Senator Peggy Lehner, chair of the Senate Education Committee, who has consistently demonstrated concern for Ohio’s public schools, though she has sometimes been silenced by her party’s leaders: “What they’ve been accused of is pretty egregious, frankly. When you see someone ripping off the state by that amount of money, there’s not much of an appetite for taking it easy on them.”

If ECOT is saved by some kind of last minute agreement, it will more likely be orchestrated by the Ohio House, where, “Rep. Andrew Brenner, R-Powell, chairman of the House Education Committee whose largest contributor is ECOT founder Bill Lager, said, ideally, the state would find a way to let ECOT students finish the school year by reducing the monthly payment.”

Candisky and Siegel also quote ECOT’s Superintendent about how the school might avoid immediate collapse: “Asked to provide options to avoid mid-year closure, ECOT Superintendent Brittny Pierson cited potential staff cuts and possible rate reductions with vendors including IQ Innovations and Altair Management, the companies run by ECOT founder Lager that have received nearly $200 million since the school opened.”

Of course there is also concern about ECOT’s students. Local school districts across the state have been forthcoming—promising to welcome any students who want to return to their schools. Nobody knows, however, exactly what kind of upheaval would occur. ECOT says this year it is serving about 12,000 students.  Candisky and Siegel paint perhaps a more realistic picture: “More than 20,000 students generally cycle through ECOT in a given school year, though state data show a number enroll for short periods or infrequently log into the school’s academic system.”

For a long time there have been serious questions about whether ECOT is really a school or whether it is primarily a giant scam to suck profits out of Ohio’s state and local tax dollars.