State might seek $19M more back from closed charter e-school


By Kantele Franko - Associated Press



COLUMBUS (AP) — The giant Ohio online charter school that abruptly closed mid-school-year lost another round of its multifaceted battle with the state over funding but said Tuesday that it’s still fighting to reopen, even as many of its 12,000 students are looking for new schools.

The Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow is challenging how Ohio tallied student participation to determine the publicly funded e-school was overpaid.

Ohio already started recouping $60 million from the 2015-16 school year, and ECOT has been running out of money. The Department of Education also concluded ECOT was overpaid by $19 million for 2016-17, and the lawyer who considered ECOT’s appeal of that in an informal hearing sided with the state on Monday.

That hearing officer is recommending the state Board of Education move to recoup the $19 million, too. The board is expected to consider the recommendation next month.

Meanwhile, some ECOT students are in educational limbo after the required oversight entity known as the school’s sponsor suspended ECOT’s operations last week, leaving families scrambling for alternatives halfway through the school year as ECOT also appeals that suspension.

ECOT students would have to be accepted by their local public school districts, but some families reject that option and instead are turning to other Ohio virtual schools or homeschooling.

Vera Burroughs refuses to send her 12-year-old son, Trevor, back to the Columbus school where she says children ridiculed him as “T-Rex” because of a joint condition that makes his hands turn outward. While she waited to hear back from another Ohio e-school, he got an unexpected play day Monday.

“He’s up on his Xbox until I can get him enrolled in another school,” Burroughs said.

Elaine Stavropoulos, from Blacklick in suburban Columbus, said she ended up in tears during a frustrating, desperate call with the one e-school that seems to be an option for her 19-year-old daughter, Chryssoula, an autistic, mostly nonverbal senior who got occupational therapy services through ECOT. Stavropoulos said she was turned down by other e-schools because of limits on their capacity, their ability to provide services for her or the complication of getting computer equipment to her for just one semester.

She blames state officials and ECOT’s sponsor, the Educational Service Center of Lake Erie West, for the predicament.

“We really never thought that they would do this to the kids,” she said.

The sponsor has said the school had to be closed because of its financial troubles.

Some supporters hope the school might reopen if it wins its case being heard by the Ohio Supreme Court next month. ECOT argues that officials wrongly changed how they tallied student participation, but the state says ECOT didn’t sufficiently document that participation to justify all of its funding.

“Had ECOT accurately reported student participation, the records would have shown that students were not getting the education taxpayers paid for,” Ohio Department of Education spokeswoman Brittany Halpin said Tuesday. “This isn’t good for students or taxpayers alike.”

ECOT supporters contend the state has helped shut down a school that provided quality education and a refuge for students dealing with illnesses, disabilities, teenage parenthood or other circumstances that made traditional classrooms challenging or impossible.

The department says that it’s committed to helping ECOT families transition to other schools and that no student should feel they have to drop out altogether.

Find Kantele Franko on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/kantele10 and her work at http://bit.ly/2qEaebN.

By Kantele Franko

Associated Press

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