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Cleveland schools' attendance data called into question
Potential scandal could hurt chances of levy passing

Grant Engle
In The Region:

The Cleveland Metropolitan School District has a 15-mill levy on the Nov. 6 ballot – hoping to raise some $85 million to stave off hundreds of additional layoffs and overhaul the district.

The levy has the backing of Democrats and Republicans, including Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson and Ohio Gov. John Kasich. But, a recent report from the state auditor’s office might make voters hesitate.

WKSU’s Grant Engle reports on the potential impact of an attendance scandal on Ohio’s second largest school district.

WKSU's Grant Engle reports

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Last week, Ohio Auditor Dave Yost announced the findings from an interim report that implicates five school districts, including Cleveland, in manipulating attendance data. They’re suspected of dropping kids from their rolls so their test scores wouldn’t count on the district report cards – even though some of the children never actually withdrew from school. Yost says he can’t determine motive, yet, and Cleveland data is challenging to collect because of the high number of students transferring in and out of the system.

Carrie Bartunek is a spokeswoman for the auditor’s office. 

“This was an interim report to start to give feedback to schools that we have already looked at. Particularly schools who are going to be on the levy – or are going to have a levy, I should say, on the ballot in November. We’re trying to give them feedback so their communities know where they stand before they go to the ballot.”

But interim or not, showing up on the list could mean trouble when it comes to voters.

Jerry Rampelt is a consultant who has worked with school districts in Ohio on levy campaigns. He says even the possibility that schools might be cheating can hurt the chances of a levy passing. But, he says Cleveland has a few options for damage control.

“One of them is you are extremely transparent. You never want to appear as if you’re hiding information because the story of hiding information can end up bigger than the original story. So, transparency is paramount. The second thing is that if you are in the midst of cleaning up and correcting and rectifying the situation – you need to have that be part of your story.”

The district has responded to the auditor’s findings with two press releases from Cleveland schools CEO Eric Gordon.

Gordon acknowledged some of his schools may have issues with attendance reporting, but  rejected any implication that Cleveland schools manipulated attendance data to improve their academic rating. For one thing, the initial release said, if the district were cheating, its report cards would not be so miserable.  It noted that nine Cleveland schools are in academic emergency – the worst rating possible.

Other school districts implicated in the initial audit are Columbus, Toledo, Marion and Campbell. A sixth district, Lockland, already has lost report-card ratings because of attendance rigging at one of its schools.

The auditor’s office says its full statewide report should be available around Jan. 1. 

The next step will be to make recommendations to the Ohio Department of Education if the auditor’s office believes the district deliberately broke the law to better its performance on state report cards.

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