Online community schools are on pace to receive more than $1.5 million in state foundation money this year that might otherwise have gone to schools in Washington County.
Some public school officials are concerned that this system undermines traditional public schools, which they say are subject to more rigorous financial oversight than their community school counterparts despite generally performing better academically. Supporters of the community, or charter, schools say they're a part of the public education system as well and also subject to strict fiscal requirements.
"We're a public school, just like any other school," said Nick Wilson, director of communications for the Columbus-based Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT). "We've never looked at it as a competitive thing for students."
EVAN BEVINS The Marietta Times
Freshmen Rachel Grogg, left, and Kinnedy Kuhn walk through the hall at the front of Warren High School after school Thursday. More than half a million dollars in state foundation money has been diverted from the Warren Local school district to online community schools enrolled in by resident students.
Based on current enrollment, nearly $540,000 will be deducted from Warren Local Schools' state foundation funding and allocated to seven community schools, primarily the Maumee-based Ohio Virtual Academy and the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow.
Warren Superintendent Tom Gibbs said the state funding system is forcing districts to make "ludicrous, from my perspective" cuts, like the elimination of high school busing and closing of schools - both courses of action Warren has taken in recent years. That has driven at least some students to leave the district and enroll in online schools, which in turn decreases district funding even more as state foundation money follows those pupils.
"We're creating a system where we under-fund the traditional public schools," forcing families to make difficult decisions, he said. "And their decision is to send their child to a school that performs worse than their public school."
At a glance
State foundation money going to online community schools in fiscal year 2013
Belpre City - $180,238.60
Fort Frye Local -$196,408.59
Frontier Local - $150,157.17
Marietta City - $457,627.34
Warren Local - $537,535.79
Wolf Creek Local - $58,043.72
Total - $1,580,011.21
Source: Times research
Gibbs, who also serves as superintendent of Fort Frye Local Schools, pointed to statistics compiled by superintendents in Lorain County that show 13 of the more than 600 traditional public school districts were placed in the lowest two rating categories of academic watch and academic emergency, compared to 121 of 301 community schools. Conversely, 387 public districts were rated excellent or excellent with distinction, compared with 30 community schools.
While Gibbs has his reservations about the state grading system, he said this should at least be an indication for state officials to put the brakes on community schools, rather than continue to push for them as a viable alternative.
"I'm not saying that every community school has failed," he said. "It just seems like a proposal that was a good idea on the surface. We've tried it. It's not working."
A moratorium on the establishment of new community schools expires with the beginning of the 2013-14 school year.
Warren and Fort Frye both received effective ratings in the preliminary state report card data released earlier this month. Ohio Virtual Academy and ECOT were both rated lower, given the continuous improvement designation.
Asked about this rating, Wilson said students who enroll in ECOT often have struggled in a public school setting for health, behavioral or other reasons.
"Generally students don't choose to attend our school if they've been successful elsewhere," he said. "We're pretty confident that we provide a high-quality education."
The first pilot community school in Ohio was established in Lucas County in 1997. Initially meant to provide an alternative to traditional public schools in large, urban areas, subsequent legislation expanded eligibility to "challenged" school districts, including those in academic watch or academic emergency.
Educational service centers, four-year universities, qualified tax-exempt entities and public school districts can sponsor community schools in designated areas. The schools do not charge tuition and are required to provide a computer to students.
Another concern local officials have is the way taxpayer money is used by community schools.
In some cases, "their books are not open to the public," Gibbs said. "Every dime we spend, there's a paper trail. It's documented. It's reviewed by auditors."
Wilson said ECOT undergoes as many, if not more, audits as any school in the state, both by the Ohio Auditor's Office and its sponsoring organization, the Educational Service Center of Lake Erie West in Toledo.
Ohio Department of Education associate director of communications John Charlton said community schools have governing authorities, which receive financial updates at monthly meetings. Although there is an alternate path to certification, all but a handful of community school treasurers hold state treasurer's licenses.
"Sponsors are required to review each community school's finances and enrollment every month," Charlton said.
Sponsors also review five-year forecasts twice a year, and ODE's office of grants management reviews cash requests and expenditure reports for traditional and community schools alike, he said.
"School employees, parents and interested parties may report concerns directly to ODE for investigation and follow-up," Charlton said.
Ohio Rep. Debbie Phillips, D-Athens, said that while community schools are subject to public oversight, they sometimes employ private management companies to handle most of their operations.
"Then we have no way of knowing whether they're spending the money on the kids," she said.
Phillips said attempts to increase oversight in situations like this have met with resistance from advocates of school choice in the General Assembly, usually along party lines.
"I really don't think when people pay their tax bill they want that money to be going into someone else's pocket as profit," she said.
Wilson noted ECOT is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, but it does contract with a private management service, which keeps 4 percent of the school's revenue. The company handles high-level administrative duties, human resources, public relations and the like, but teachers, principals and others are all employed by ECOT.
"The rest of that money is fully in the public eye," he said.
Belpre City Schools Superintendent Tony Dunn said the public doesn't have a right to see a company's books when they're using their own money, but when it comes from the taxpayers, that's a different story.
"When you're taking public funds, then every penny ought to be accounted for," Dunn said.
Marietta resident Claire Knolle, 52, said she doesn't know a lot about the oversight required of the Ohio Virtual Academy, in which her 14-year-old daughter has been enrolled for just more than a year, but she's not worried about it receiving public funds. As a home-schooling parent for more than 15 years, she's glad some of her tax dollars are contributing to the education of one of her children.
"I'm a taxpayer. I pay for everybody's kids to go to school," she said. "I think it's actually only fair."
Gibbs and Dunn said there are other regulations that differ for traditional public and community schools, and believe the playing field should be level. They expressed concerns that the state seems to be moving more and more toward privatization, even when the evidence does not support it.
"I think the siphoning of public funds to support these private organizations is criminal," Dunn said.