An artistic rendering of what giving taxpayer dollars to ECOT is like.

No sector — not local governments, school districts, court systems, public universities or hospitals — misspends tax dollars like charter schools in Ohio.

Of all that has been written about the sorry, twenty-year history of charter schools in the Buckeye State, this single sentence from a 2015 Akron Beacon Journal article provides the strongest evidence in explaining how an online charter school has the gall to use public funds to attack the very agency of state government that provides its oxygen.

For those who might want to avoid a bout of indigestion and heartburn, it might be good advice to somehow avoid the 6 p.m. local news, at least for the time being. The long-running soap opera and spectacle known as ECOT is running an ad blitz that might have some folks reaching for a bottle of Tums.

During the last several evenings, the Columbus market has seen ads run by two other online charters inviting you to enroll your child for the coming school year. The ads for K12 and its two Ohio online charter schools are innocuous enough, as are the ads for OHDELA. However, the ads for the most notorious online Ohio charter school, ECOT, are beyond disturbing.

It’s time to reach for the Tums.

In the latest ECOT ad, Let Us Learn, a student identified as a recent graduate of the online school states that “a bunch of bureaucrats decided to change the rules on us mid-year,” and that decision is at the center of the school’s problems.

Moreover, he says, “the Ohio Department of Education wants to end school choice.” The subtitle for the ad displayed on YouTube comes with these descriptors and hashtags: It’s Time to Fix a Broken Ohio Department of Education. Let Ohio’s Kids Learn. #SaveECOT #BehindClosedDoors #brokenODE.

When it comes to use of the pejorative and changing the subject back to the performance of a state agency to deflect its own dismal record, ECOT has few peers.

As the soap opera and sorry spectacle called ECOT continues to ignite its cannonade of attack ads that land in Ohio homes during dinner hour, ads designed to bite the hand that feeds this voracious consumer of tax dollars, one has to wonder if this is the best recent example of the meaning of the term chutzpah.

Is there an over-the-counter remedy like Tums available to help ECOT’s leadership alleviate the effects of chutzpah? Surely, attacking the most generous and reliable hand that’s been hard at work feeding them with tax dollars for nearly 20 years must indicate an underlying, preexisting condition that requires some type of medication to lessen its effects. At the very least, the words audacious and bizarre are inadequate to describe such behavior.

On second thought, maybe even Merck can’t help on this one.

Ohio state Auditor Dave Yost apparently has had enough of ECOT and their over-the-top use of public funds for attack ads against ODE to litigate the $60 million that the school owes the state treasury due to inflated enrollment and state overpayments for one school year.

Never mind that if a $60 million overpayment was calculated for one year, it is possible that if the same auditing methodology could be used to go back and check more academic years, such overypayments might reach $250 million or more during the life of the school.

The Columbus Dispatch described Yost’s letter to ECOT in this fashion:

“It is my understanding that the costs of the preparation and dissemination of the broadcasts are being defrayed by ECOT out of funds received by it from the state of Ohio and allocated to and intended for the education of students enrolled in your institution,” Yost says in the letter, which he provided in response to a Public Records Act request.

If so, that spending is “in support of your dispute with ODE, the administrative agency charged with the responsibility of enforcing the full compliance of Ohio schools with applicable law. As such, if these facts are correct, the expenditures cannot be justified as advancing a proper public purpose and are impermissible.”

According to a follow-up story in the Dispatch, there still may be some uncertainty about whether ECOT will produce and air similar attack ads in the future.

Meanwhile, television ads from ECOT attacking the Department of Education are scheduled to end Thursday (June 29). But because the series of ads already was set to conclude, it’s unclear whether ECOT officials will comply with an order by Ohio Auditor Dave Yost on Monday to stop using taxpayer dollars on the spots because that is an impermissible use of public funds.

ECOT officials did not respond to messages seeking comment on whether they would continue with the ads or how much of the public’s money had been spent on the spots.

By any reasonable interpretation, the ECOT attack ads do not meet the test of funds being expended for a “proper public purpose.” That same principle drives the audit process for any public agency, and many charters which have been the subject of fraudulent practices and gross mismanagement have found themselves placed in the auditor’s findings for recovery designation. It will be interesting to see where a further examination of ECOT spending practices might take us.

But if all of this weren’t enough, ECOT has now gone to the Ohio Supreme Court to ask for relief from the Ohio Department of Education’s “abuse of discretion and unlawful conduct.”

Abuse and unlawful conduct? Sure.

And the envelope, please. The winner of the 2017 Chutzpah Award goes to … ECOT!
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Denis Smith is a retired school administrator and a former consultant in the Ohio Department of Education’s charter school office. He writes about education issues as well as politics and constitutional reform.

 

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