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State Superintendent, School Board Square Off Over Charter School Investigation

State Superintendent Richard Ross takes questions from the Ohio Board of Education during its meetings this week.
Mark Urycki

Members of the Ohio Board of Education were able to question State Superintendent Richard Ross during the group’s meeting Tuesday. It was his first interaction with the board since the charter school data scrubbing scandal went public.

The Ohio State Board of Education seemed locked and loaded to fire one tough question after another. After all, this was the board’s first opportunity to confront State Education Superintendent Richard Ross since July, when the state’s school choice director resigned after admitting that he excluded failing grades from charter school sponsor evaluations.

The board wanted to know, did Ross know about the data rigging? Who else was involved? Will there be an independent investigation?

Ross started his portion of the board of education meeting by taking the issue head on.

“I’ve been very disappointed and upset about this," he said. "It is something that is so counter to everything that I believe because I believe in accountability for all schools. Doesn’t matter if they’re community schools or traditional schools and that’s important because if we’re gonna have accountability we’re gonna have to have accurate data."

Since learning of the data scrubbing, the department of education threw out any completed charter school sponsor evaluations and created a new board to handle the evaluation process with more oversight. Ross’ administration also released more than 100,000 emails, text messages and other documents related to the incident. None of the records seem to indicate any involvement on Ross’ part.

“If somebody had shared that with me it wouldn’t have happened and we wouldn’t be here talking about it today,” Ross said.

The Ohio Departmente. of Education is pushing for updated safety plans for schools around the state
Credit Ohio Department of Education
Ross told the Ohio Board of Education no other employees at the department of education seem to be involved with School Choice Director David Hansen's data scrubbing.

Ross says no other employees have lost their jobs over this issue. And as far as a non-internal investigation, he explained that the inspector general and auditor are looking over all the documents.

“Personally I have no compunction because it’s probably to my benefit to have the inspector general come in and take a look. I don’t want to be presumptuous to the inspector general but I certainly personally would be an advocate of him coming in,” Ross said.

But when pressed, Ross would not say that he’d actually request an investigation by the inspector general.

Stephanie Dodd is part of a group of mostly Democratic school board members who not only want a third-party investigation, but want that investigation to come from a non-partisan group. Part of the reason some say that’s needed is because of Ross’ close ties with Gov. John Kasich. He was Kasich’s education advisor before becoming the state school superintendent. Dodd says an independent probe avoids the possible political pitfall that could come from a report from the state's inspector general or auditor.

“A Republican auditor and a republican inspector general, who was appointed by the governor and also who used to work for the lieutenant governor so I think that in order to appropriately clear the air it would have to be somebody who was external and independent,” Dodd said.

Dodd was not completely satisfied with Ross’ appearance at the board meeting. She noted she still had some unanswered questions and pointed out that Ross started to rattle off the same statements over and over again.

Since releasing its records, there have been questions about the culture of secrecy within the Ohio Department of Education and if the employees who knew about the data scrubbing felt comfortable enough to report that information to a supervisor.

Ross says they’re addressing that issue by crafting a new whistleblower policy that encourages employees to come forward without fear of retribution.

“A whistleblower policy is designed to do just that," he said. "If someone feels intimidated or threatened within a department and they can’t share or don’t feel like they can share or they could be at risk if they share then I think that that’s the point and that’s what we want to do.”

Ross said the policy won’t stray from what’s already in statute for state employees.

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