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Auditor questions Cleveland schools attendance practices

6:54 PM, Oct 4, 2012   |    comments
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COLUMBUS -- The state's auditor says five Ohio school districts have used questionable attendance policies and practices, putting them at a higher risk for scrubbing attendance data to improve their school report cards.

The districts are Cleveland, Columbus, Toledo, Marion, and Campbell. "Scrubbing" is the practice of removing students from enrollment without lawful reason.

State Auditor Dave Yost released the preliminary findings Thursday as part of his investigation into potentially irregular attendance and enrollment practices.

"There needs to be better accountability so that we can measure how well we're doing, the progress we're making education our kids," Yost announced.

Cleveland Schools CEO flatly denied that attendance figures had been manipulated, but did respond to the Auditor's claim of sloppy record keeping in Cleveland.

"What the auditor's report says is that we have problems in our policies and procedures, many of which date back to 2001," Gordon told WKYC. "I have no problem with that. We wil fix those proceudres."

"But then to make the causal leap to suggest those procedures are in place to game the system, I have a problem with that."

Gordon hoped the auditor's report would not hurt the district's chances of passing a 15-mill levy on the November ballot. "For those who already oppose it, this will just give them more reason," he said.

Blaine Griffin, campaign chairman of the effort to pass Issue 107, dispatched teams of workers to go door to door in Cleveland neighborhoods only hours after the auditor's report was made public.

"My people are instructed not to get into confrontations," Griffin explained at levy headquarters. "My people are at the door to bascially say we all have a stake in this. We all want to win this levy."

Gordon said 12 of the 15 Cleveland schools examined by Yost got D's or F's on their state report card anyway.

"So to suggest taht we would be aggressively trying to manipulate scores to get D's and F's, even as we went to Columbus to seek help to improve this system, I think that's a leap and I'm not going to spend any more energy on it."

In addition to his comments to WKYC in an interview Thursday, Cleveland schools CEO Eric Gordon and the Cleveland Metropolitan School District also responded with a formal statement.

In part, the response was:

"Release of an interim report today of a statewide probe of attendance reporting in 100 Ohio schools cited weaknesses in Cleveland's recording practices, but produced no evidence that these practices were implemented to improve state report card ratings."

"Although CEO Eric Gordon expressed concerns about the state's numbers, he said he fully acknowledges that improvements are needed in the district's current attendance and record keeping policies and in its enrollment and withdrawal procedures."

"It is a complex issue that school officials across the state, especially in urban districts with high student mobility, have grappled with for years, and there is no question that we must find ways to do it better," Gordon said.

"But the CEO said he will challenge any suggestion that procedures used in Cleveland were established in order to "scrub" attendance data for the purpose of improving the district's report card ratings."

"The low performance of the 15 schools identified by the auditor do not at all support the state's concerns that Cleveland used these practices for the purpose of improving report card ratings," said Gordon.

"The low performance of these identified schools, including nine in Academic Emergency, three in Academic Watch, and a school not even eligible for a state rating, obviously reaped no benefit for the schools or for CMSD."

"After receiving a preliminary report sent to districts on October 2, CMSD officials requested verification of data in the report, released publicly by the Auditor of State on Thursday, October 4."

"Gordon said he has not yet received answers to questions raised to auditors Wednesday about numbers used in this interim report and the CEO remains concerned about the potential use of inaccurate data obtained from the Ohio Department of Education, which appears, he said, to be used in crafting potential findings for Cleveland and for other Ohio school districts."

"The data cited for Cleveland says 19,633 students (34.4%) and 12,235 tested students (21.4%) "rolled-up" to the state, which would mean our student population would have had to have been between 57,072 and 57,173 students in 2010-11," said Gordon.

"Our verified enrollment, as reported by the State Auditor in our FY2011 Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (CAFR) was 43,202."

"Gordon said he concurs and fully intends to follow the state's recommendation to update and improve enrollment, attendance, and record keeping policies, procedures and practices, some of which have been in place in the district as far back as 2001.

"The state-wide review sheds light on the complexity of attendance reporting, especially in high-mobility districts, and we are hopeful that it will lead to improved practices at the state and local level," said Gordon. "There is no question that improvements are needed in our own practices. That does not mean we cheat."

The data was collected from a sampling of more than 100 school buildings that experienced high withdrawal rates - or about 3 percent of Ohio's 3,688 public schools.

Yost said some schools in the five districts withdrew students based on a pattern of absences, which could have been influenced by lower test scores, without proper documentation.

He says the cost of the attendance audit is $284,150 and 6,930 hours.

The Associated Press/WKYC-TV

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