dataColumbus City Schools District recovers from data scandal

By Kelly Chian,‘16

Over the past two years, three Columbus City School officials have been criminally charged for data manipulation to gain more funding. The district is trying to recover and move on by having faculty repay earned bonuses and setting goals for the future.

The state audit from 2010-11 of Columbus City Schools found nearly 7,000 grade changes and Marion Franklin High School accounts for over 1,300 of those cases. Other instances of erasing absences or giving excused absences were reported to increase funding based on attendance.

On Jan. 14, former Columbus City Schools Superintendent Gene Harris pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor dereliction of duty and was found guilty and fined $1,500, probation and community service.

“No contest” does not mean pleading guilty or not guilty but rather admitting to the truth of the facts and dereliction of duty refers the failure of completing one’s duty in a reasonable manner for public positions.

“I would never knowingly or intentionally do anything that would bring harm to children; the leadership and staff or the reputation of the Columbus City School District. I truly regret that there were actions that led to today’s proceedings,” Harris said in court, according to The Columbus Dispatch.

Harris, who spent 37 years educating, served as Columbus City Schools’ superintendent for 15 years, during a time when thousands of incidences of changes in grades and attendances were found by the state auditor.

Prosecutor Ron O’Brien brought charges on Gene Harris for not preventing or stopping the tampering of records.

“[This] was essentially the CEO of the schools not taking a more active step in trying to address these things,” said Prosecutor Ron O’Brien in court.

Harris retired in 2013 voluntarily and Dan Good, the current Columbus City Schools superintendent, has since taken over the job.

Steven Tankovich, data czar of Columbus City Schools, was the first school official to be to be found guilty of attempted tampering with evidence after pleading no contest.

Tankovich served his 15-day sentence in jail and two years probation on Dec. 12.

He taught the principals how to withdraw students with poor attendance and he believed what principals did with that ability was their fault, according to This Week News.

“My intent was always in correcting data and getting it to be the most accurate for the benefit for the kids of Columbus so we could provide them the best instruction possible,” Tankovich said to WBNS.

Gene Harris is not the only one criminally charged administrator in the Columbus City Schools district; Marion-Franklin High School Assistant Principal Stanley K. Pyle pleaded guilty to a felony of attempted tampering with public records.

Pyle was sentenced to two years probation and a $1,500 fine for changing 650 grades at the school from F’s to D’s in the 2010-11 school year.

The changing of grades, Pyle claims, was to help students get jobs and admittance into the military.

Franklin County Common Pleas Judge Pat Sheeran believed this hurt the students, as many students figured that it would not be as hard to pass a class.

Sheeran called the scandal “an absolute collective failure” and suspects financial gain through bonuses and more federal grants motivated these school officials.

Former Linden-McKinley STEM Academy Principal Tiffany L. Chavers is accused of manipulating data by withdrawing students from the districts who hadn’t left. Withdrawing students, many failed their state tests, removed their scores from the schools’ state report cards.

Chavers was fighting her firing from the district, on Feb. 3, a hearing officer ruled the school district had evidence and good reason to fire her.

The hearing proved that Chavers withdrew undesirable students and passed failing students, according to The Columbus Dispatch.

In court, Chavers argued she did not see how it is wrong to withdraw students that have not left the district. Under oath, Chavers said she thought other principals not being accounted was unfair. She also testified that she was told to manipulate the data from district officials out of fear of losing her job, according to The Columbus Dispatch.

Former principal Pamela Diggs is also fighting the firing and has a hearing in late March.

Most of the staff members at the Columbus City Schools are paying back bonuses they earned due to the data manipulation. The total bonuses that need to be returned add up to over $360,000.

The staff is given the option to send the money in checks or reduced pay and need the money by the end of the school year.

Many voters still hesitant from the scandals failed the 2013 levy. The voters want to see true improvement and commitment to bettering the district without spending as much.

Columbus Education Commission has made a list of 55 recommendations for the district to follow. Currently, 16 of the recommendations have been met and 13 have had improvements, but 26 objectives have yet to be addressed.

Some of the remaining objectives include having adequate computer equipment for students and teachers, having more quality charter school options for students and creating or expanding existing schools that are successful and have long waiting lists.

The commission is trying to raise the standard of education in Columbus schools by increasing, kindergarten readiness and the amount of A or B rated schools, providing more college credit options or hiring strong principals and teachers.

Superintendent Good and Mayor Michael Coleman are hoping to re-imagine the Columbus City Schools District.

“We believe in Columbus, even as the district was mired in turmoil and a crisis of confidence,” Coleman said at the previous annual state of the district on Jan. 13, in reference to the data scandal.

Good wants to move forward to provide opportunities that extend past the boundaries.

“Seize this opportunity to re-imagine education in Columbus as a system that helps prepare, from cradle to career, all who seek to be inspired and enlightened and efficacious,” Good said in his speech.

Good listed his accomplishments occurring at the school district so far: increasing attendance, the number of high school-age students enrolling in postsecondary education, graduation rates and raiding around $50 million in scholarships for students post-high school education.

“But we’re not finished,” Good said in his speech. “We’ll never be finished.”

Photo by Dan Casey

District sets standards for the future