State finds high absenteeism during Mahoning charter-school visits

Staff report


When state auditors showed up unannounced at a Youngstown charter school last October, they found none of the 95 students who were reported to be attending on site.

At another Mahoning County charter, 30 of 180 students were in the school on the day auditors visited. Two other Youngstown-area charters had enough absences that auditors are suggesting further investigation.

Administrators offered reasons for the absences — an early release after morning testing at one, challenges keeping dropouts coming through the doors on a daily basis at another.

The Mahoning schools were among more than a dozen statewide spotlighted by Republican Auditor Dave Yost on Thursday in a report of attendance rates at selected charters, which receive funding based on student enrollment.

Of the 30 schools checked, more than half had fewer students on site during multiple surprise visits by auditors than enrollment reported to the state.

Yost said the results don’t necessarily mean the schools are operating fraudulently or that their attendance rates have been inflated to net increased state funding. He also cautioned that the reviews were not all-encompassing audits of charter operations; rather, they focused strictly on student attendance.

But Yost said the results should prompt lawmakers and state education officials to consider law and policy changes to hold charter schools more accountable for the public funding they receive.

“This is a problem for Ohio from a budget standpoint,” he said. “... As an auditor, I’m worried anytime I see money that’s being spent where I can’t tell whether it’s being properly spent. But beyond that, these charter schools are not there just for kids that go there. These charter schools are there because we want an Ohio that has educated kids, that has kids that become adults that are productive members of society. Whether it’s a failing charter school or a failing public school, we all have an incredible interest in this.”

State Sen. Joe Schiavoni of Boardman, D-33rd, agreed.

“Auditor Yost is right,” Schiavoni, the Ohio Senate minority leader, said in a statement. “Ohio’s system of regulating public charter schools is broken. It’s something we have been saying for many years. I hope we have reached a tipping point where both Republicans and Democrats can agree on the need for comprehensive charter-school reform.”

He said he would reintroduce legislation to bring more accountability and transparency to charter-school sponsors and operators.

“There are just too many examples of students being cheated out of a good education and tax dollars being wasted for the General Assembly to ignore the problem any longer,” Schiavoni said. “This is the year to work together to pass meaningful reforms.”

Yost’s office conducted surprise visits to 30 charter schools across the state, comparing students in class on given days to the enrollment numbers reported to the Ohio Department of Education in July.

The seven charters with the lowest attendance rates are all geared toward dropouts.

Among them was the Academy for Urban Scholars in Youngstown, which reported an enrollment of 95 students. But in October, when auditors visited the school, there were no students on the premises. During a follow-up visit a month later, 37 students were on site.

Administrators said students participated in practice Ohio Graduation Tests during the morning of the October visit and had been released by the time auditors arrive.

The school also noted “attendance tends to be low. ... Each student’s schedule varied according to instruction needed for graduation.”

The Life Skills Center of Youngstown reported an enrollment of 180 students, but only 30 were on hand during auditors’ visit in October.

The school told the auditor’s office that it “had an overall attendance rate of 40.7 percent last year and [is] currently reporting 32 percent attendance rate. ... While attendance rates for dropout-recovery schools is generally poor considering the population, the numbers counted [by state auditors] seem reasonable.”

Nine other schools were noted for attendance issues, though not as severe. That list included the Summit Academy Youngstown and the Summit Academy Secondary School Youngstown.

The remaining 14 schools had attendance rates that were in line with enrollment reported to the state. That list included the Stambaugh Charter Academy in Youngstown.

Yost’s office forwarded the results to the Ohio Department of Education, urging further investigation of 16 of the schools.

The auditor stopped short of saying the latter should be forced to repay the state for funding received for students who did not attend classes.

The information gathered during the audit “isn’t enough to conclude that a particular dollar amount would be owed,” he said. “What is certain is there’s enough holes in this bucket that you probably can’t fill it up faster than it leaks.”

Yost’s report recommends improved attendance tracking at charters, and he said more accountability should to be built into the system.

Education officials say they are reviewing the report.

Gov. John Kasich and some Statehouse Republicans already have indicated their intention to increase charter-school oversight.