In a 6-0 ruling, the court said charter schools fall within the definition of public office. Thus, their treasurers and other officers are public officials. As such, they can be held accountable, personally and individually, for the misuse or loss of public funds collected or received in the name of the schools.
The ruling stems from a case in which the state is seeking to recover from the treasurer of a defunct Cleveland charter school about $1.4 million in public funds paid to the school based on inflated enrollment figures. The ruling dispels the notion that charter school officials are exempt from the same degree of responsibility that applies to all public officials, including those in traditional public schools, who manage taxpayer funds.
The growth of the charter school system in Ohio has greatly expanded the number of institutions and personnel with access to large amounts of public funds and a responsibility to manage the resources effectively. If most of the schools operate with reasonable efficiency, there have been enough instances of financial mismanagement and fraudulent practices (such as inflated enrollment figures) over the years to justify close oversight and aggressive legal action to protect public resources.
The merit of close scrutiny is evident in the turnaround of Akron-based Summit Academy Management. The company, which operates 26 schools across the state for special-needs children, hardly was a model of financial responsibility, paying exceptionally high salaries for top administrators at the same time as the schools posted dismal results and struggled to make payroll and pay their bills. Faced with the loss of its sponsor, it has made the effort to improve operations. If the high court has made one thing clear, it is the expectation of scrupulous accountability from those entrusted with public funds to educate children.