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Columbus School Audit Finalized, Case Heads To Prosecutors

The investigation into data rigging at the Columbus City Schools is now in the hands of criminal investigators. State Auditor Dave Yost, in wrapping up his probe, said school administrators played "fast and loose" with attendance figures along with students' grades and other data. Auditor Yost said a culture of data manipulation and intimidation lasted for years in the Columbus City Schools. A generation of Columbus school students were left behind because the adults cheated. The investigation found e-mails referencing data rigging as far back as 2002. The audit primarily looked at grade and attendance data changes during the 2010-2011 school year. Yost said data was manipulated to make the state's largest school district look better on state report cards. The audit claims school executives Michael Dodds and Steve Tankovich led the manipulation. While Yost did not interview former Superintendent Gene Harris, he said, “There is a reasonable inference based on the interviews that she at least knew what was going on.â€? The audit includes an account of a 2007 meeting where the rigging was discussed. Two witnesses said Harris covered her ears when the subject came up. The scope of the data scrubbing was wide. More than half a million student absences were erased during the 2010–2011 school year. Administrators changed more than 7,000 grades, most from F to D or better. Investigators say one principal had a name for changing failing grades. "His motto was "D" them up. In other words take an "F" and move it to a "D." His stated philosophy was that there shouldn't be any failures," says Yost. Much of the attendance rigging occurred in or after the end of the school year. Yost said district supervisors were told by data director Steve Tankovich that the attendance changes were OK. But then auditors checked with the Ohio Department of Education. Yost cited numerous instances of lack of administrative control. He said the school board's hands-off governance and the state’s “honor systemâ€? were partly to blame, Columbus City Schools superintendent Dan Good made no excuses for the audit’s findings. But he pledged, “That as long as I am here, to the best of my ability, I shall not allow anything of this nature to happen again.â€? To help rectify the problem, the district has taken steps to fire more employees directly involved in the scandal. As the audit was being released, the district suspended four high school principals with pay and recommended they be fired. Among those getting letters yesterday was Marion-Franklin High School Principal Pamela Diggs whose school had – by far – the most grade changes. Officials say Diggs knew one of her assistant principals changed “hundredsâ€? of students’ grades from failing to passing in June 2011. Investigators say Diggs withdrew and and re-enrolled students to enhance the school’s performance rating. Principals Tiffany Chavers, of Linden-McKinley, Christopher Qualls, of Independence, and Jonathan Stevens, of Mifflin, also received similar letters for either altering grades or attendance records. So far, a total of 15 district employees have either been fired or left on their own due to the data rigging. Good said they’ve improved systems and procedures. That includes a new, stronger data collection system; updates to protocols for changing records such as absences and grades; and a checklist to track the withdrawal process. “The auditor speaks to this being a cultural issue, and it does take a while to change behaviors," Good said. "But we do have very specific guidelines in place and we have numerous support systems in place to help guide administrators if they have questions and secretaries and others who may have access to the data.â€? As for school board oversight, its new president Gary Baker expects to make changes to its hands-off governance framework.