Catherine Candisky The Columbus Dispatch
The State Board of Education on Monday unanimously ordered ECOT to repay $19.2 million in overpayments for the 2016-2017 school year, accepting the findings of an Ohio Department of Education review that was recently upheld by a state hearing officer.
The Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, which closed last month because financial difficulties, is expected to appeal the order in the courts. ECOT officials could not immediately be reached for comment, have claimed the school was entitled to all of the $104 million in state aid it received for the 2016-17 school year.
This was the second year Ohio’s largest online school has been ordered to repay millions to the state for unverified student enrollment.
In 2015-16 school year, ECOT was unable to verify about 60 percent of its enrollment, the department found, and was ordered to repay $60 million. ECOT lost an administrative appeal and two subsequent court challenges to the ruling, and the case is now pending before the Ohio Supreme Court. The high court will hear oral arguments in the case on Tuesday.
In the most recent review, the education department found ECOT verified 11,575 students, 18.5 percent fewer than the 14,203 students that the school reported for the 2016-2017 school year. The state used student log-in durations and documented non-computer time to determine whether students were meeting the state-required minimum of 920 hours of learning opportunities per year.
Hearing officer Kevin Shedler, who worked for the Department of Education, last month concurred with the department review.
ECOT closed last month after its sponsor, the Educational Service Center of Lake Erie West, voted 3-0 to immediately suspend and eventually terminate its sponsorship. Ohio law requires charter schools to have a sponsor. The board said ECOT was going to run out of money by the end of March, which the school said was a result of the Department of Education recouping $2.5 million per month from the school for unverified enrollment the 2015-16 school year, plus additional deductions for the school over-stating student counts in the current year.
The latest $19.2 million would have added to the total that ECOT had deducted from its monthly state payments.
ECOT is hoping that the Ohio Supreme Court rules the state improperly changed its enrollment verification procedures, and requires the state to give back the money, potentially allowing the school to reopen next year.