COLUMBUS — In the 1950s, Columbus City Schools students listened to radio broadcasts — cutting-edge education technology — in their classrooms for an hour each morning.

There were lessons on Ohio's 88 counties and the city of Columbus, narrated by a teacher, to supplement state history units, according to archived Dispatch articles. Children also listened to science, math, art and music programs. By the 1960s, schools as far as 50 miles from Columbus tuned in, too, and the daily broadcasts grew to several hours.

These days, WCBE (90.5-FM), a public radio station owned by the Columbus Board of Education since 1956, operates quite differently.

Thursday morning, a singer on tour from Nashville belted out ballads and played acoustic guitar in a studio while her husband played keyboard. NPR news programming followed, updating as many as 65,000 unique weekly listeners throughout central Ohio.

In the wake of news that the station's former general manager, Dan Mushalko, concealed nearly $870,000 in debt for years from school district officials by falsifying documents, administrators are evaluating whether the local NPR affiliate is worth keeping beyond the coming school year.

And if it is, the district is trying to determine what that arrangement might look like. Options include integrating the station into the school curriculum — emulating programs in place at stations owned by school districts in Akron and Toledo  — or turning the station over to a nonprofit operator.

If it is not, the district could sell the broadcasting license.

A decision is expected before the next fiscal year starts on July 1, 2020.

"Why is Columbus City Schools in the radio business? Right now, the answer to that is, in part, 'because we have been for these past several decades,' " said Scott Varner, the district's executive director of strategic communications. He oversees the station on the downtown campus of the Fort Hayes Career Center.

Officials now say they need a better answer to that question and to determine how the station aligns with the district's educational mission.

Few K-12 school districts own a public radio license. Of more than 1,500 public stations across the country, schools own just 19, according to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a nonprofit group that provides funding to public stations nationwide.

If the district incorporates the station back into its academic programs, it could receive support through state and federal funding designated for career technical education. However, that would require investing in new equipment, as the station's technology is too outdated to be used for such a program, Varner said.

Some Ohio districts are already making such career technical operations work.

Akron Public Schools has owned WAPS (91.3-FM), known as The Summit, since the 1950s. The adult album alternative station will move into a new space in the coming school year and will be incorporated back into the district's career tech programs, as it had been in the past, said general manager Tommy Bruno, one of seven employees of the independent station.

Bruno said a broadcast license is a valuable asset that can't easily be bought again, as a limited number of frequencies are available. By gathering listener feedback eight years ago, The Summit has found its place in the district and community, he said. It has created specialized online broadcasts, scholarship opportunities and more internships for students.

"What role does radio have within a public school district? It's not easy to answer, but it's a question that needs to be asked," Bruno said. "It's a privilege, not a right, to have these signals."

Toledo Public Schools has about 30 Scott High School juniors and seniors enrolled in a radio and television program that includes working for WXTS (88.3-FM), which is housed there, said Tom Dimitrew, the district's director of career technology. Students produce videos and news broadcasts, host a sports talk show and cover events for the jazz station, which was first licensed to the district in 1975. It operates from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.

The University of Toledo operates the frequency as WXUT after hours, Dimitrew said.

WCBE was one of the original charter-member stations of NPR in 1970. Since 2000, the station has essentially operated independently.

Varner estimates that the station costs $1.6 million annually to operate in its current form. About $460,000 pays for programming, and $900,000 goes toward the salaries of 14 employees — totals that, until recently, included Mushalko, said Varner, his former supervisor. Mushalko was forced to resign June 25, according to investigative records.

The district transferred money from its general fund to cover the station's debt in May and could pay more if the station's fundraising and underwriting for this fiscal year, which ends June 30, 2020, comes up short.

Together with stakeholders, including listeners and station employees, the district will consider all options for the station's future, Varner said.

Because WCBE operates on a frequency that the Federal Communications Commission reserves for nonprofit broadcasting, it could not be sold to a commercial entity; universities or religious groups are typical owners of such licenses.

Another option, keeping the license but giving up the station's operations, had been offered to Mushalko, according to public records. Don McTigue, a local lawyer who incorporated the nonprofit group WCBE Ohio Inc. in 2013 to support the station, sent Mushalko a letter about the discussions in January. McTigue offered to pay off the debt to NPR in return for control of the station, according to public records.