The first report regarding ECOT’s operations following allegations from an insider that the school used new tracking software to manipulate attendance data will come from the state auditor.

But release of the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow annual financial audit, initially expected this week, has been delayed. Some are waiting to see if Auditor Dave Yost makes any referrals for potential criminal prosecution.

No one is saying whether that will happen, whether it be for attendance tracking issues or other potential irregular spending.

“Audit findings related to information obtained via subpoena regarding ECOT’s advertising caused the delay,” said Yost spokesman Ben Marrison.

Yost’s office issued multiple subpoenas last year to ECOT to hand over information about who paid for what were essentially political attack ads against the Ohio Department of Education. Last fall, Yost accused ECOT of failing to properly respond to the subpoenas.

Schools are not permitted under Ohio law to use taxpayer money to fund political advertisements. An ECOT spokesman, Neil Clark, told The Dispatch last summer that taxpayer money paid for the attack ads, including one where a former student looked into the camera and said, “Sadly, the Ohio Department of Education says many of us don't count.”

ECOT, which was the state's largest charter school, later said the school did not fund the ads, but it has not been made clear who did.

The ads ran as the education department, utilizing an enhanced attendance accounting system, ordered ECOT to repay $60 million for unverified enrollment for the 2015-16 school year. The department would later order the school to repay another $19 million for 2016-17.

An ECOT attorney declined to comment; the school no longer has an official spokesperson.

The auditor’s office has not commented on what ECOT’s audit will say or if there will be referrals for prosecution. An ECOT insider who was among those let go during an initial wave of layoffs last summer has spoken on multiple occasions to the auditor’s office about how the school used new computer-usage tracking software to create the impression that students were spending more time on instructional activity than was actually occurring.

“Most of the internal staff and leadership seemed to be seeking to work with integrity, but they were always pressured by Altair to focus on revenue over student academics,” the insider said, referring to ECOT’s for-profit management company, Altair Management, owned by ECOT founder Bill Lager.

“Even in the final months of my employment when truancy laws were changing, the emphasis was placed on meeting minimal reporting requirements — not trying to actually lay plans for student intervention, which was the staff-level interest.”

As monthly state funding deductions helped put the school in a downward financial spiral, ECOT’s sponsor, the Educational Service Center of Lake Erie West, suspended the school’s operations in January.

jsiegel@dispatch.com

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