© 2021 WKSU
Public Radio News for Northeast Ohio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Former ECOT Official Calls Data Manipulation Accusation Bogus

A photo of the ECOT Headquarters in Columbus
ECOT closed after it was accused of inflating attendance numbers. New allegations say the operators used new software to further manipulate the numbers.

Though it’s been closed for months, critics are now accusing what was the state’s largest online charter school of deliberately manipulating student data to defraud the state out of millions of dollars. The allegation against the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow is coming from a former employee. That allegation is part of a larger investigation. 

A former employee in the administrative offices of the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, also known as ECOT, told the state auditor’s office that school employees were asked to manipulate student data.

The order allegedly came from top ECOT officials, according to Sandy Theis, a longtime critic of ECOT, who says she’s had meetings with this whistleblower.

“They openly talked about what they could do to get the highest number of attendance," Theis said.

'ECOT worked hard to ensure that there was not duplicated time ever.'

ECOT has had a long dispute with the Ohio Department of Educatin over its attendance and student participation numbers. In 2016, the state found that ECOT only had about 40 percent of the full- time students they said they had. That resulted in a claw back of about $60 million.

According to Theis, the whistleblower says ECOT was trying to fabricate student participation in the next school year to boost it up to 80 percent of the full- time students they originally reported.

“And even though ECOT was under fire for padding its attendance, the department of education took ECOT’s word with these new numbers. When I saw that, I thought this guy is on the money," Theis said.

The education department concluded in February that ECOT must return another $20 million because the school was still getting money for students it didn’t have in the 2016-17 school year.

Theis says if ECOT did manipulate the data, then it owes the state much more.

'Even though ECOT was under fire for padding its attendance, the department of education took ECOT's word.'

Laura McNamara is a former assistant principal at ECOT and a vocal supporter of the school. She says she was in on several meetings with other ECOT officials when they were rolling out the new software that tracked student participation.

Asked if ECOT officials asked her to manipulate or inflate the numbers to make it look like students were doing more work than they were, she responded, "Absolutely not. That never occurred.”

A struggle with new software
The software is known as ActivTrak. McNamara says there were meetings where ECOT officials were trying to figure out how to use ActivTrak to accurately follow student data. As McNamara puts it, counter to the whistleblower’s account, they had to make tweaks to make sure the software wasn’t over-counting hours.

“ECOT worked hard to ensure that there was not duplicated time ever -- that if a student worked 12-1 they got credit for one hour as opposed to if they were in five programs from 12-1 that they would get five hours," McNamara said.

McNamara says, because of the school’s closure, there’s no incentive for her to protect ECOT.

A small group of higher ups
But Theis says McNamara wouldn’t know about the alleged scheme.

“This whistleblower was pretty high up and these were conversations between a small group of higher ups inside ECOT," Theis said.

The former ECOT employee reported the allegations to the Ohio Department of Education and Ohio Auditor Dave Yost. Yost says his office is investigating the claim and plans to include it in a report of tis findings on May 1.

The Ohio Department of Education did not offer a comment.

ECOT is now under the direction of a special master of the court because of pending litigation. That special master had no comment about the accusation adding that these events would have occurred before he took over.