Julie Carr Smyth

COLUMBUS: Ohio’s eight largest big-city school districts say they have experienced numerous problems understanding and using the computer system that’s at the center of a statewide data-tampering investigation.

The “Ohio 8” alliance says in a new analysis that the Ohio Department of Education has failed to adequately train districts on how to use the Educational Management Information System, or EMIS, and reports generated for them through the system can be late, missing or filled with errors.

The analysis produced by the districts and provided to the Associated Press also says EMIS allows a student to be assigned more than one identification number. That muddies the schools’ ability to track the child’s attendance and academic progress and sometimes causes their new district to lose funding associated with the student.

The coalition said it wants to work with the state Education Department to address the problems districts have experienced with EMIS. The group includes districts and unions in Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati, Toledo, Dayton, Akron, Canton and Youngstown that control nearly $3 billion in combined budgets and 200,000 students.

“I would like the message to be that we would like to work with the state to ensure that the system is efficient, because it’s really not efficient right now,” said Dayton Superintendent Lori L. Ward, who has a background in information technology.

State Auditor Dave Yost is investigating allegations that certain Ohio districts might have manipulated attendance and enrollment data. The questioned data was submitted through EMIS. A central question is whether the mistakes were innocent or were deliberate manipulations aimed at boosting district performance ratings or upping employee bonuses.

Yost also is looking at the role the state Education Department might have played in the altered data.

School districts regularly submit more than 40 different sets of data to the state Education Department through EMIS.

The system generates reports based on the information, which include student and staff demographics, attendance files, course information, financial data and test results.

Information compiled by EMIS is used to create the state’s district performance rankings and to prove Ohio is meeting obligations linked to its federal funding through the No Child Left Behind Act and the Race to the Top initiative.

Ward said EMIS was upgraded this year and some of the issues cited in the Ohio 8 report stem from that transition.

“However, EMIS hasn’t been a smooth-running system for years,” she said.

The Ohio 8 raise the computer issues as Ohio districts large and small are struggling with the legal and public relations ramifications of the statewide investigation by Yost.

Modified state performance rankings, called report cards, were released Wednesday after a monthlong delay.

The 19-member Ohio Board of Education postponed release of the reports fearing that underlying data might be tainted, but ultimately opted to publish all unaffected data.

Two of the Ohio 8 districts — Columbus and Toledo — were among early targets of probes by Yost and the state Education Department, as was the suburban Cincinnati district of Lockland, where the superintendent was fired and has sued to get her job back.

Columbus Superintendent Gene Harris announced last week that she will retire at the end of the current school year as questions of unusual attendance and enrollment practices continue to dog her district. Harris said her decision wasn’t prompted by Yost’s probe.

An investigator’s preliminary report in Toledo found the district didn’t violate state law by withdrawing and re-enrolling habitually truant students.

To view the report card data the state released Wednesday, find the online version of this story on the Education page of Ohio.com.