State officials overpaid Ohio’s first online charter school $1.7 million last year, providing money for students even though they did not meet official enrollment standards, the state auditor said Nov. 13.

Although the Columbus-based Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (eCOT) said it had enrolled more than 2,000 students in September 2000, for example, only seven actually received computer-based instruction, said state auditor Jim Petro.

He said both eCOT and the Department of Education shared blame.

Petro called the department’s lack of oversight “an exhibition of how to botch up the establishment of a new charter school.” As for eCOT, “I think for the first two months they were gaming the system,” Petro said.

The school does not owe the state money because there were no guidelines in place to stop the overpayment from happening, Petro said.

The audit examined enrollment and funding figures from September and October of 2000.

eCOT would not address specifics about the audit before it was released.

“Overall, we’re very pleased with the auditor’s recommendations and will comply with them,” eCOT spokesman Brian Usher said.

The state raised the issue of counting enrollment at the online school when eCOT asked the Education Department to sponsor it, spokesman J.C. Benton said. The state’s Lucas County Educational Service Center ultimately sponsored the school.

“We are working closely with eCOT as well as the auditor’s office to iron out some of the problems we encountered with enrollment the first year,” Benton said.

The brainchild of two Columbus businessmen, eCOT enrolled more than 2,000 students in its first year, quickly becoming the state’s largest charter school and one of the biggest of the dozens of new online schools around the country.

It also drew criticism from some public school superintendents, who accused eCOT of exaggerating enrollment, causing their districts to lose funding to the charter school even before the numbers were verified. Meantime, some parents complained about long delays receiving computers.

Charter schools are publicly funded, privately operated schools free from some state regulations. They must provide their estimated enrollment in July to receive state money. They also must indicate from which districts they will take students.

The state then deducts money from those districts for the charter schools and is to reimburse them if charter school enrollments don’t meet estimates.

Stephen Ramsey, president of the Ohio Charter School Association, said the audit process has helped both the school and the state.

“The biggest plus for this is it alerted the school and probably the Department of Education early on about problems and gave them an opportunity to correct them,” Ramsey said.

Michael Towns, whose son Antiwan and daughter Michelle were eCOT students last year, has generally good things to say about the school, despite several problems.

After being promised computers in September, they didn’t receive them until November. Once the computers arrived, the phone lines weren’t hooked up.

Once the computers and internet connection were working, there were problems reaching teachers and getting timely responses. Sometimes Towns’ children waited more than a day before hearing back, he said.

It wasn’t until February of this year that all problems were ironed out, he said. His children are attending Columbus city schools this year.

Michelle, 14, wanted to be around students and take advantage of extracurricular activities. Antiwan, a special education student, needed more structure and one-on-one interaction with a teacher, said Towns.

“He just needed a little more attention,” said Towns, 39, of Columbus. “We needed to put him in a program where he can have a little more structure.”

Related links:
Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow
http://www.eCOTOhio.org

Ohio Department of Education
http://www.ode.state.oh.us