JULIE CARR SMYTH
AP Statehouse Correspondent
COLUMBUS — Ohio’s state auditor said Thursday he is expanding an investigation into changes made to student attendance data to local school districts, community schools and the state Education Department.
In a letter sent Thursday to Ohio Board of Education President Debe Terhar, Auditor Dave Yost said the possible infractions under investigation in Columbus, Toledo and suburban Cincinnati suggest the problem may be systemic.
There’s no evidence that anyone at the state Education Department is involved, “but the apparently widespread nature of the practice begs the nature of the question of at least a lack of oversight,” Yost wrote.
Yost asked Terhar to direct Education Department employees to preserve all records, even those set to be destroyed under normal public records schedules. The Republican auditor further warned state education employees not to tamper with records or interfere with witnesses in the case.
He said his office may need help data-mining Education Department records and access to documents, personnel and interviews.
It wasn’t immediately clear Thursday how the role of the Education Department would change as a result of Yost’s decision, said Yost spokeswoman Carrie Bartunek.
State Superintendent Stan Heffner, who leads the department, has launched his own investigation and has said the probe could lead to criminal charges against educators who committed fraud.
Heffner spokesman John Charlton said the department will continue to work with Yost’s office.
“(The Ohio Department of Education) believes in the integrity of data. When it is misused we want the investigation to go wherever it leads,” he said.
Heffner discussed that possibility Wednesday, the same day the state Education Department announced the Lockland district in suburban Cincinnati filed false attendance data to improve its state report card.
Changing attendance data can change the entire report card by controlling which students end up in the final pool of test-takers whose results are counted.
The department is investigating claims that Columbus and Toledo schools also retroactively altered student attendance records to boost district results. Heffner said he’ll seek simultaneous criminal and civil investigations if there’s evidence of fraud.
“I will be asking our office of professional conduct to launch investigations along with the attorney general’s office if I find there is evidence of fraud so we have civil and criminal investigations at the same time,” Heffner said. “Those people have no business in our public schools.”
Heffner has said he has the option of downgrading districts’ ratings on their state report cards, fining them and withholding up to 20 percent of their state aid if it is determined that district officials rigged state report-card data.
“However, I also don’t want to do anything that hurts the opportunities of students because of the bad behavior of adults,” he said.
Heffner said the data questions and a focus on improving student test scores have created an overemphasis on state report cards for districts.
The state quickly amended Lockland’s state report cards, which detail how students do on proficiency tests, how frequently they attend class and how many graduate. The state says 36 students were falsely reported as having left the district and then added back to the roster later. The break in enrollment led to their test scores not being counted in the district’s overall performance rating.
Lockland officials released a written statement saying the school board has not had an opportunity to review the allegations and that the district had no comment.
Some Toledo public schools leaders had detailed in back-and-forth emails their desires to exclude special education students and those absent for a length of time from their records — apparently to affect the weighted average of student test scores.
The state education department ordered an investigation after district Superintendent Jerome Pecko acknowledged to The Blade last week that schools retroactively withdrew and re-enrolled chronically absent students to erase their poor attendance records.