COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — The Ohio House has created a new type of academic distress commission for school districts where an attendance-tampering investigation uncovers intentional deception, and a city that could be a target is raising concerns.
Such commissions are a relatively new idea in Ohio, created so far in only two districts — Youngstown and the Cleveland suburb of Lorain.
The commissions — which include three appointees of the state superintendent and two appointees of the local school board president — sweep in to help districts struggling against a longstanding academic performance crisis.
The new emergency panel would give the mayor of the largest city the district serves — rather than the school board president — the job of picking two of the commission members. The state superintendent would still pick the other three.
The provision inserted into the $61.5 billion, two-year state budget this week would appear tailor-made to apply to the Columbus City Schools. It's the only district so far where state Auditor Dave Yost has suggested malintent to manipulate data as part of his statewide investigation.
Columbus Mayor Michael Coleman has expressed shock at the amendment, which he said he didn't know was coming. With the Columbus school district's support, he's put together a 25-member committee that's working to recommend changes to the school system.
Spokesman Dan Williamson said the amendment fueled rumors that the mayor's effort is designed to take over the district, something Coleman has vehemently denied.
"It's divisive and distracting," Williamson said. "What we're trying to do is hard enough."
Sponsoring Rep. Cheryl Grossman, a Grove City Republican, said the amendment isn't specific to Columbus. She said Yost's probe has identified data-rigging issues all over the state.
"I don't think that this should be narrowed to Columbus. It's a statewide problem with the data issue that the auditor has identified," she said. "This just adds a new way to address a new problem in the state."
Grossman emphasized that her amendment permits, but does not require, the commission to be formed. The budget bill containing the proposal goes next to the Ohio Senate.
Motivations for doctoring attendance records include potentially higher performance ratings, more state or federal aid, and employee bonuses.
Eight districts had their state report cards flagged in February while they answered Yost's accusations of altering attendance data. Yost has also identified 70 districts with less serious attendance reporting errors.
Carrie Bartunek, a spokeswoman for Yost's office, said Columbus is the only district where investigations continue and the only one where Yost has addressed the issue of intent.
Columbus City Schools spokesman Jeff Warner said community support for policy and procedural changes the district pursues in response to the data-tampering discoveries is crucial.
"Because the recommendations are being developed by the community in a ground-up approach, rather than a top-down approach aimed at imposing the will of government officials, we believe these reform efforts will be more successful and will be supported by the community," he said.
Current Ohio law requires creation of an Academic Distress Commission when a district is in academic emergency and fails to meet annual performance-improvement targets for four consecutive years.
Ohio Department of Education spokesman John Charlton said Youngstown was the first district in Ohio to see a commission formed, and Lorain is the latest — with its panel's first meeting scheduled for Monday.
A third district, Cleveland, received a waiver from getting a commission after crafting a recovery plan in cooperation with local government and business leaders, school district officials, the teachers' union and Gov. John Kasich. The Cleveland plan was enacted into state law.