The Allegation

Columbus City Schools employees – and perhaps others in schools throughout the state – are accused of falsifying students’ records to improve their schools’ standing on state report cards.

The Method

School workers withdrew students they knew to be still enrolled, deleted their absences, and then re-enrolled them. The district is accused of choosing children with many absences or low test scores.

Framework for Ethical Decision Making

1. What is the Ethical Intensity of your case and why?


The Allegation
Columbus City Schools employees – and perhaps others in schools throughout the state – are accused of falsifying students’ records to improve their schools’ standing on state report cards.

The Method School workers withdrew students they knew to be still enrolled, deleted their absences, and then re-enrolled them. The district is accused of choosing children with many absences or low test scores.

The Motive

By withdrawing and re-enrolling students, employees can break a student’s string of “continuous enrollment.” Only the test scores of students who have been enrolled nonstop from October through the time they take state tests in the spring are counted in a school’s overall test-passing rate.

State education department probes data ‘scrubbing’ by schools – The Columbus DispatchWednesday February 27, 2013

Columbus City Schools and eight other Ohio districts are now under investigation by the Ohio Department of Education for misrepresenting student enrollment data, meaning they could lose funding and educators who cheated could lose their licenses.

The department is releasing official district and school report cards for the 2011-12 school year today, about six months late, because of a statewide investigation into data rigging. But for districts that cheated, report cards for the past two years could be recalculated after the department reviews their data.

For those nine districts where the state auditor found evidence that employees “scrubbed” data, school report cards will appear with a disclaimer that says the results “are under review” and could change.

“Every school in those districts will have their report cards ‘watermarked’??” with the disclaimer, even if individual schools in those districts were not found to have scrubbed data, said John Charlton, spokesman for the state Department of Education.

In addition to Columbus, the other eight districts where evidence of scrubbing was found are: Canton, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Marion, Toledo, Campbell in Mahoning County, Northridge in Montgomery County and Winton Woods in Hamilton County.

The state auditor found that each district illegally withdrew students — as if they had left school even though they hadn’t — and that knocked those students’ test scores and absences out of state report-card ratings. The result inflated districts’ rankings.

The department sent letters to those districts last week that said it is opening its own investigation into the accuracy of their data.

“Misrepresenting student enrollment status, and thus, reporting inaccurate data” is a violation of Ohio law, the letters said. Sanctions can include the revocation of state funds and educator certificates for anyone involved, the letters say.

Charlton couldn’t say when the new probe would end.

Also, 52 other school districts where auditors found errors in data-reporting that didn’t appear to be the result of intentional scrubbing received letters informing them that they have until March 15 to submit corrective-action plans to the department. Those letters relate to errors found in the submissions from a total of 74 school buildings in those districts.

“Should your district have multiple school buildings with one or more errors identified, please ensure that the plan you submit for corrective action is school building specific,” the letters to those districts say. They note that failure to file the corrective plan could lead to sanctions.

The rest of the state’s 614 school districts are in the clear.

State Auditor Dave Yost continues to conduct a special audit of Columbus City Schools, a probe that began last summer after The Dispatch reported that several district employees said a conspiracy existed to alter thousands of student records each year.

Two district officials and a Columbus police officer who worked at a district high school have thus far resigned. The FBI also is investigating.

Yost referred the nine districts to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Inspector General, which could work with federal prosecutors if criminal wrongdoing involving federal education funds is involved.
Columbus school board gave Harris all the power – The Columbus DispatchSunday February 24, 2013

If it looks like the Columbus Board of Education hasn’t been paying close attention to the details of running a $1 billion-a-year enterprise, it’s by design.

In 2006, the board took a hands-off approach to governing the school district with its “policy governance” model, handing Superintendent Gene Harris unprecedented control to run the district with minimal board oversight.

Now, Harris is heading for the exit, leaving the board concerned for its survival.

Board President Carol Perkins introduced a resolution last week opposing any effort to disband the board or diminish its power and reaffirming that it is in charge. She said she was trying to head off rumors of the board’s imminent demise.

While Columbus Mayor Michael B. Coleman continued to insist that his Education Commission isn’t plotting a takeover, it likely will push for changes to state law that will transform how Columbus City Schools operates, officials have said.

“Transition always causes tensions,” Coleman said in his State of the City address on Thursday. The commission is “developing a pathway for change,” he said.

In December 2011, Coleman said Harris was “the best superintendent this city has ever seen,” posting significant improvements in a “very challenging environment.”

But last summer, The Dispatch began reporting that many of those modest academic gains might have been fiction, realized by secretly “scrubbing” student data to improve state report cards. The state auditor and FBI continue to investigate, and Harris unexpectedly announced her retirement — to take place this summer — after the scandal began unfolding.

That leaves the school board conducting a national search for a new leader for a position that, by the board’s design, concentrates decision-making power in an unelected position.

“I lay all of our problems that we have at the feet of policy governance,” said Columbus school board member Mike Wiles.

If state lawmakers do nothing else, they should outlaw public boards from using policy governance, Wiles said.

“You can’t sit there and say ‘Oh, it doesn’t have anything to do with us,’??” Wiles said. “To turn everything over to the superintendent and basically abdicate your power is ludicrous.”

Perkins couldn’t be reached.

Policy governance was created by an Atlanta educational psychologist, John Carver, for corporate boards. Describing his governance model on a YouTube video, Carver said that a board sets its values in broad terms and then lets management “use any reasonable interpretation of those words” to run the operation.

“At that point it’s turned over, for the most part, to the CEO,” Carver says.

In other words, Harris actually runs things, as long as she can cite a policy somewhere in the manual that the board approved. And there usually is a policy that lets Harris decide just about anything.

Hiring a human resources consulting firm for $32,000? No problem, you’ve got this policy: “ Personnel Administration: Neither the CEO, CFO, nor Internal Auditor shall fail to assure the employment, evaluation, and compensation of district employees in a manner necessary to enable the organization to achieve its Ends policies.”

Need to create a $1 billion taxpayer-financed budget?

“Who authorizes the budget?” Carver asks in the video. “In policy governance, the staff does, not the board.” The board gives a basic philosophy on budgeting, “and if you stick with those values then any set of numbers will be OK,” Carver says. The board “is not the final decision-maker.”

Harris’ written budgets have been so thin over the years that some board members have complained that they don’t know what they’re voting on. Board members still approved the budgets. They have demanded a better process, which is yet to surface.

“Policy governance was not brought by Dr. Harris” but by former board President Stephanie Hightower and Vice President Terry Boyd, said school district spokesman Jeff Warner.

Hightower, who is now on the city’s Education Commission, couldn’t be reached.

While the board ultimately must vote on most of Harris’ decisions, it often does so without debate on a “consent agenda.” The board doesn’t hold budget hearings, but members started getting detailed departmental budgets two years ago, Warner said.

In 2006, the board spent months creating policies for Harris to follow. Then it disbanded the committees that tracked what Harris was actually doing. It holds Harris accountable through “ monitoring reports,” which Harris creates.

Among others, it killed its academic-achievement committee, where school issues were discussed, and the business committee, where purchases were scrutinized.

Today, Harris spends money often with no debate at the board table.

“Dr. Harris at the time expressed some concern about the elimination of committees,” Warner said. The intent was to eliminate a layer of bureaucracy and streamline the operation so that it could be more responsive to the needs of the school district, he said.

But eliminating committees effectively moved issues from being discussed at public meetings to being decided secretly in the superintendent’s office, despite Harris’ assurances of transparency in 2006.

Meanwhile, district officials were altering student records to make schools and the district look better, according to the state auditor and the district’s internal auditor. Board members said they knew nothing about the data manipulation. And they’ve had little to say about it since it was revealed.

Under policy governance, board members aren’t allowed to “express individual negative judgments” about Harris or her administration, except in private meetings. When talking with the media or the public, a good board member is to “recognize the inability of any board member to speak for the board except to repeat explicitly stated board decisions.”

And to build trust among them, board members were instructed to “criticize privately, praise publicly,” and to “promote the positive image of the district” while they “maintain confidentiality appropriate to sensitive issues.” Board members violating these codes could be removed from leadership or committee positions and publicly censured, the policy says.

Then-board member Andrew J. Ginther, now the Columbus City Council president, voted to approve the new system in 2006, noting then that the public wanted a “productive and constructive” board. Now, Ginther is co-sponsor with Coleman of the city Education Commission bent on fixing the district.

Ginther spokesman John Ivanic said policy governance was deemed the best model for the district in 2006 “based on the best information at the time.” It remains to be seen whether it is still the best model, and Ginther expects it to be debated when the Education Commission debates leadership and accountability in March.

The idea that the commission threatens the school board’s authority is more than rumor, said Joe Rugola, executive director of the Ohio Association of Public School Employees. His union is affiliated with Columbus’ school workers union.

A group of politicians and business leaders in Columbus plans to ask the state legislature to create an oversight board — a “super-board,” Rugola said.

Although the mayor and some on the Education Commission have said they are prepared to ask legislators to create special exceptions to state law for Columbus City Schools, they have not publicly said they’ll push to change the governance of the district.

The union said it will fight anything that takes decision-making power away from voters.

The state has the power to create a five-member “academic distress commission” to oversee districts that fail to meet minimum academic requirements for four straight years. But Columbus’ report cards don’t put it in that category; it is a C-rated district, and the data the district reported shows it has been making progress. There’s no provision in state law that would create an oversight committee to help a school district dig itself out of a data scandal.




The Allegation