Ohio Rep. Kristina Roegner says tax dollars recouped from mismanaged charter schools belong to local school districts, not the state.

On Wednesday, the Hudson Republican will give the first testimony in support of House Bill 87, legislation she hopes will put school districts at the front of the line when tax dollars mishandled by charter schools are recovered and returned.

Since 2001, accountants working for Ohio Auditor Dave Yost cited $29.3 million in tax dollars misappropriated, sometimes illegally, by charter schools. In some years, three-quarters of all misspending could be traced to charter schools, which account for no more than 7 percent of all publicly funded agencies in Ohio.

Recent reforms have been enacted to increase transparency on how tax dollars are spent by charter schools, or the for-profit companies that run most of them in Ohio. But because audits are conducted a year after the money is spent and sometimes after charter schools close, $26.9 million remains outstanding and is likely lost forever.

State audits occasionally direct the Ohio Attorney General’s Office to return the $2.5 million that has been collected to the state’s general fund.

“That’s not right because this money has come from local school districts,” Roegner said. “So this bill would say, ‘No, don’t return this money to the state, return it to the district from where it came.’?”

Roegner honed in on this issue after bumping into Mark Curtis at a parade in Twinsburg about a year ago. Curtis, who works for the Cuyahoga County Educational Service Center, met with Roegner days later to talk generally about school funding. The conversation eventually landed on charter school audits.

The Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT) — Ohio’s largest online charter school — was slapped with a state audit months later. Auditor Yost’s office has confirmed an Ohio Department of Education review of attendance records that reflected $60 million in overpayments to the for-profit management company behind the school.

“I think that the timing of this and getting it done is critical,” said Curtis, who was elected to the Twinsburg Board of Education in 2015 and now serves as president. “Because if it comes to fruition that ECOT has to return the money that [auditors] are saying [it misspent], then it not only benefits Twinsburg but school districts across the state.”

Twinsburg is home to seven ECOT students drawing $44,640 away from the district. Most Ohio school districts are in the same boat and would be refunded if Roegner’s bill becomes law before the money is collected. But ECOT has appealed the decision, taking the state to court and at times refusing to turn over student records.

Local distinction

Roegner’s plan has bipartisan support. But predicting whether the bill gets a second hearing is tricky. Tax dollars follow students. If they opt out of their default school district, the money goes with them to neighboring school districts through open enrollment or to charter schools, which are privately run but publicly funded. This pass-through system has a tendency to mix state and local dollars.

For example, property-rich Wood­ridge gets $708 in state aid per student but loses on average $7,831 per student who attends a charter school, including 19 at ECOT. The difference means locally levied dollars are subsidizing charter schools, which were never approved directly by Ohio voters.

Roegner introduced her bill in February with the blessing of 25 co-sponsors: 21 Republicans and four Democrats, including Rep. Theresa Fedor of Toledo, a leading voice on the left for charter school reform.

But even with bipartisan support, the bill may face an uphill battle because of how it treats state dollars that are essentially deducted from local school districts and sent straight to charter schools.

“That distinction between whether it’s local or state money will probably be at the heart of the debate over this, if it gets to be debated,” said Roegner, who has noted the resistance to charter school reform from her party in the past three years.

“Have there been opponents?” she asked of House Bill 87. “Well, right now, no one is vocally opposing it because it’s early on.”

Doug Livingston can be reached at 330-996-3792 or dlivingston@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow on Twitter: @ABJDoug .