Ann Sanner

COLUMBUS: Columbus city schools played “fast and loose” with attendance data, grades and other records, the Ohio auditor said Tuesday in releasing findings from an 18-month investigation.

Auditor Dave Yost said his review into attendance data scrubbing at the state’s largest school district showed a culture of changing the numbers and a lack of oversight by its board of education.

District employees have been accused of altering attendance records for struggling students to improve performance ratings, which can be used to determine government funding and employee bonuses.

The auditor’s review covered the 2010-11 school year, and Yost said the district has since made some changes in its protocol.

Shortly after the report’s release, Columbus Superintendent Dan Good said at a separate news conference that the district was moving to fire four principals who he says were associated with the data tampering. They are being placed on unpaid leave and recommended for termination.

Another 11 employees implicated in the data-changing scheme have already left the schools on their own or in agreement with the district, Good said. Others could still face discipline.

Good told reporters that the district has and will continue to address reporting issues that the auditor has identified.

“I offer no excuses on behalf of the district,” he said, adding that he wouldn’t let “anything of this nature” happen again.

The record-keeping at the schools went beyond a paperwork problem, Yost said at a news conference.

Investigators reviewed a sample of 200 letter grade changes in the district and found that 83.5 percent did not have documentation to support the grade shift.

Yost said certain grade-change evidence obtained from Marion-Franklin High School would be forwarded to the city attorney, the Franklin County prosecutor and the U.S. attorney’s office for their consideration.

According to the report, teachers at the high school told investigators that an assistant principal pressured them to pass all students, explaining that the administrator’s constant comment was to “D ‘em up.”

The high school’s principal was among those who received a termination notice Tuesday. The notice said that an assistant principal under her supervision, and acting under her direction and knowledge, changed hundreds of grades from failing to passing.

District spokesman Jeff Warner said in a telephone interview that the assistant principal was no longer at Marion-Franklin and that he could not comment further.

Of the district findings overall, Yost said, “This represents really a failure to document and to record the things that are most important to a child’s progress through the educational system.”

Other data indicated that 374 students in the district were withdrawn and re-enrolled on the same day, the report said. The office looked at 106 of those student files and found that the district could provide documentation to support only two withdrawals and no records to back the re-enrollments.

Asked about the motivations of district officials to change data, Yost told reporters that administrators wanted to look good.

“They wanted their performance measurements to look better than they did,” he said. “They wanted to avoid the consequences that come from not doing a good job.”

Yost said the district lacked a way to sufficiently report its performance to the board of education that governs it. He said that helped create a culture where administrators “felt free to play fast and loose with the data, to take actions that were contrary to Ohio law and contrary to the policies of the district itself.”

Board President Gary Baker II told reporters the board has committed to reviewing its governance structure and making changes.

Yost’s review of Columbus was spun from a broader review he conducted last year that identified more than 70 Ohio schools or districts that made attendance reporting errors and a handful that scrubbed.

For the Columbus investigation, he said, his staff interviewed more than 40 principals and assistant principals, 230 teachers, 20 secretaries and other office personnel, and 25 current and former workers at the district’s data center. His office has billed the district for more than $115,000 for the hours it’s spent working on the audit.