COLUMBUS — Lack of oversight, a haphazard internal investigation, inexplicable emails that don’t say who sent or received them, a stonewalling state superintendent and a failure to secure data are highlighted in a years-long investigation into a charter-school evaluation scandal at the Department of Education that was released this week.
The problems erupted three years ago when it was discovered that the man in charge of the state’s charter-school office excluded poorly performing e-school scores from new charter-sponsor results, allowing them to avoid having the low scores reflect badly on their overall evaluations. The move related to the state’s effort to obtain a $71 million federal charter-school grant.
Auditor Dave Yost’s office used a special audit to dig into the claim that David Hansen, the department’s school-choice director, improperly manipulated charter-school sponsor evaluations to improve Ohio’s chances at the federal money.
The review found a multitude of issues at a department that Yost years ago called one of the worst run in state government. The 1,577-page audit, including transcripts and other material, said current and former department employees had “inconsistent recollections of past events,” so the auditor could not determine if the errors “were the result of malicious intent or a lack of effective internal controls.”
Hansen, the husband of Beth Hansen, Gov. John Kasich’s chief of staff, said he told then-state Superintendent Dick Ross on two occasions of his plans, prior to them becoming public in the summer of 2015. Most agreed Hansen’s move violated state law.
Ross denied to auditors that he was told ahead of time, even though emails show Hansen informed Ross’ chief of staff, Jimmy Sheppard, and a handful of other senior staffers about what he was doing.
Senior staff told auditors that “they didn’t understand the meaning of it until the board meeting” where, thanks to questions by state Sen. Peggy Lehner, R-Kettering, Hansen was dragged into the gathering from his office elsewhere in the building to describe what he had done. Ross “cautioned the board not to take up too much of Hansen’s time since he was very busy,” the audit said.
Ross told auditors he was surprised no one made him aware of Hansen’s decision prior to the meeting. And on Sept. 15, Ross told a board committee that senior leadership was unaware of the action prior to July 14.
Auditors found otherwise: “These statements contradict the findings of this special audit … The evidence shows Hansen did inform senior staff of the decision … It is unclear whether any of these individuals communicated their knowledge of Hansen’s decision to Dr. Ross.”
After Hansen’s conduct was revealed, Ross said he put Sheppard in charge of an internal investigation. But the audit didn’t find much of a deep dive.
Sheppard said he never understood that he was in charge, or that it was even a formal investigation. He didn’t bother to document anything in writing about the process or conclusions.
“So was anyone really ever in control of the internal investigation results until (Chief Legal Counsel) Diane (Lease) gets there?” auditors asked Sheppard.
“Is this where you are going to make me look bad?” he replied. “I don’t know how to answer that question. I mean, Dick was. Dick was obviously the superintendent.”
Sheppard said Ross did not give him a deadline, nor tell him a report should be written.
The audit says David Hansen had access to his computer, iPad and phone longer than he should have. The report notes that the “From” and “To” are missing from some emails, and auditors remarked they didn’t know that was possible. “In some cases it appears that the body of the email has been deleted, or portions of it.”
The effort to complete the audit was not smooth. When Yost’s public-records requests didn’t work, he had to issue subpoenas and fight with department legal counsel over what records violated attorney-client privilege, which the agency refused to waive. Ross refused to be interviewed until he was subpoenaed.
Kasich spokesman Jon Keeling said, “This recounting of events from four years ago also serves as a reminder of how the department’s leadership swiftly acted to continue improving the quality of oversight and accountability in school choice and we hope it will remain high.”
When the state school board sought an independent probe of Hansen’s actions in August 2015, Kasich called it “political” since Hansen already had quit.
Brittany Halpin, spokeswoman for the department, said, “A robust sponsor-evaluation system is a key accountability measure that drives continuous improvement and helps ensure Ohio’s families have quality school-choice options. Thanks to the reforms passed by the General Assembly, the expectations are high, and we see sponsors rising to the challenge.”
Ohio Democratic Chairman David Pepper accused Yost of “taking out the trash,” a phrase describing the release of bad news prior to a holiday or weekend. He said Yost can’t be trusted to hold charter schools accountable so “taxpayers deserve an independent investigation.”