The Educational Service Center of Lake Erie West board voted unanimously Thursday to suspend its sponsorship of the troubled online Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow charter school.
The 3-0 vote took place during a meeting on the last day of the current ECOT semester. The board also voted to begin termination process for its sponsorship of one of the nation's largest charter schools. A spokeswoman for the charter sponsor said earlier that ECOT would likely close after classes Friday if the board voted to pull its sponsorship.
ECOT had appealed a decision last week by the Toledo-based sponsor to suspend sponsorship of the school. Charter schools must have a sponsor to operate in Ohio.
Before the meeting, Apryl Morin, executive director of the educational service center, said, the Governing Board will be meeting this evening to consider the school’s proposed remedy and determine whether suspension is appropriate. If imposed, any suspension would likely take effect after close of business on Friday."
Meanwhile, the state Department of Education and local school districts are preparing for an influx of students from a shuttered ECOT.
"I have told our people (at the Department of Education) that it is up to them to manage this situation ... that they are prepared to be able to absorb these students," Gov. John Kasich said.
"We have told them that on a regular basis without getting into the middle of negotiations. We don't believe it is our job to do that, it's not appropriate. So, we'll see what happens and I certainly hope the Department of Education has a plan."
Thursday morning, following complaints from students, parents and others that they had been left in the dark since the suspension was announced a week ago, ECOT superintendent Brittny Pierson issued a letter updating them. She mentioned the Lake Erie West board meeting.
"ECOT provided an appeal along with supporting documentation to support our rationale for delaying or overruling a suspension of services. We will be notified of the decision in writing tomorrow but if you want to attend the meeting it is open to the public," Pierson wrote.
"It is not expected or required that you attend this meeting. We welcome any support that students, family members, or teachers from the local community may want to provide. We appreciate all of the kind words of support as we continue to fight to keep our school open. Thank you for continuing to stay with us through this uncertain time."
After an emergency board meeting Wednesday, ECOT announced it had made a "final offer" to the Ohio Department of Education that it says would allow the state's largest charger school to remain open through graduation this spring.
Under the proposal, ECOT founder Bill Lager would step down from Altair Learning, his affiliated management company that operates the school, and ECOT would suspend all payments to the company.
The plan, ECOT says, also would allow the state to continue recouping monthly payments from nearly $80 million in overpayments of state aid.
Ohio Department of Education officials have not responded to several requests for comment on the proposal, both Wednesday and today. But in a statement Thursday afternoon, the department did not suggest it was involved in negotiations.
"The department is closely monitoring the ongoing interactions between ECOT and its sponsor, however, the school remains open at this time. Our primary focus is on the students and families who may be impacted by any decisions regarding ECOT’s future. We are prepared to assist students, their families, schools and teachers on any potential transition," said department spokesperson Brittany Halpin in the prepared statement.
Franklin County Common Pleas Court Judge Michael Holbrook has scheduled a hearing for Friday on Lake Erie West’s request to appoint a receiver to take control of the troubled online school’s operations and finances.
In court filings, Lake Erie West said there are "no remedies" to avoid suspending ECOT’s operations.
ECOT's troubles stem from a state order to repay about $80 million for claiming payment for thousands of students who did not meet minimum participation requirements. Under a two-year repayment plan, the Department of Education in July began withholding $2.5 million per month.
ECOT officials said in a court filing that the school would be broke by March.
In a letter Thursday to Holbrook and attorneys for Lake Erie West and ECOT, state Auditor Dave Yost said his office performed a recent assessment of the school's financial condition to ensure it was accurately represented to its sponsor. The analysis did not find any discrepancies, and found the school would run a $1 million cash deficit as of March.
Lake Erie West officials say they prefer the school shut down at the end of this semester rather than in the middle of the next one.
Yost also noted that of the $80 million owed to the state, Lager's companies, Altair and IQ Innovations, are still responsible for repaying a combined $10.7 million, and Lake Erie West owes $804,560.
Yost also confirmed that Traveler's has canceled the revocation of ECOT's treasurer's bond, which is legally required to operate.
ECOT opened in 2000, and has attracted top Republican politicians to its graduation ceremonies over the years, including Kasich, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Ohio Supreme Court Justice Terrence O'Donnell, Yost, House Speaker Cliff Rosenberger, and former Speaker William G. Batchelder.
Catherine Candisky is a reporter with the Columbus Dispatch. Dispatch reporters Randy Ludlow and Jim Siegel contributed to this story.