School leaders in Columbus wipe out 2.8 million absences

Columbus Dispatch


Columbus City Schools officials wiped 2.8 million student absence days off the district’s computers during the past 51/2 school years, with some key officials responsible for tens of thousands of deletions.

The officials routinely erased more recorded student absences than they reported to the state — in some years, substantially more — according to district data tables The Dispatch obtained by filing a public-records request.

“We just don’t have any rational idea why these deletions are being done in such volume,” said Keith Finn, a district data analyst who, before he retired in January, used the computer to count the deletions for the district’s internal auditor. “It makes you want to bring them in and ask them some questions.”

The district’s data deletion peaked during the 2009-10 school year, when officials deleted 627,446 absences. That was far more than the 449,168 absences the district reported to the Ohio Department of Education, a number that met the state standard for attendance.

But in June of that year, just before they reported numbers to the state, district officials erased almost 102,000 absence days. If those absences had remained, the district would have failed to meet the state standard.

The changes could have boosted not only attendance numbers but also test-passing rates and the amount of state financial aid the district received. The state auditor’s office and the Ohio Department of Education are investigating.

On Friday, district officials declined to discuss what the data tables show, instead releasing this written statement: “There are legitimate reasons for changes in attendance records. What meaning the data represents will be determined over the course of the investigation. It would be inappropriate to draw any conclusions looking at the data in isolation or without greater context.”

There are legitimate reasons to delete an absence: Someone might make a mistake entering the information, requiring a correction; or an absent student could be determined later to have transferred to another school or district.

Superintendent Gene Harris “personally is committed to ensuring that we get to the bottom of this through the investigation with the state, and we will fully support their investigation in any way, shape or form,” district spokesman Jeff Warner said.

According to computer records turned over by the district, leading the record-deleting pack was a Downtown district executive named Michael Dodds, a former high-school principal whom Harris promoted in 2009 to be an executive director over 26 principals.

Dodds deleted almost 70,000 absences dating to 2006-07, the computer table shows. More than 13,000 of Dodds’ deletions were made in June.

Dodds’ work deleting records dates to when he was principal of Independence High School, a building that also topped the list of deleted absences while he was there.

Dodds could not be reached for comment, a district spokesman said.

While Dodds is the only person Harris has suspended thus far in the data-rigging probe, he was far from the only official deleting records. A total of almost 1,700 employees changed at least one record, the data show.

There were 79 secretaries, school administrators or other staff members who each deleted more than 10,000 absence days since the fall of 2006.

One official, Michael Taylor, who is an “office automation coordinator” in the Office of Accountability, changed 68,300 records over the 51/2 years, records show. The students whose absences were deleted by Taylor attended 190 different schools and alternative programs, records show. Taylor couldn’t be reached.

Taylor’s boss at the Office of Accountability was Steve Tankovich, whom Harris reassigned to a new job during the investigation. The data do not show that Tankovich changed any records.

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