State audit questions Cleveland schools attendance figures

CLEVELAND - A state audit released Thursday raises questions about the attendance counts at two city schools from reports made the first full week of October 2004.

The number of students counted as present or with an excused absence determines the amount of money the state pays in annual per-pupil aid.

Cleveland gets $5,169 in state aid for each student, and the state per-pupil aid for the 2004-05 school year totaled $336 million.

The audit found that files at A.B. Hart Elementary School and Collinwood High School, two schools chosen at random, often lacked proper excuses for students who missed school during the week in October 2004.

At A.B. Hart, 79 of the 344 excused absences that week weren't properly documented. At Collinwood, 228 of the 728 excused absences were questionable. During that week, A.B. Hart recorded only two unexcused absences and Collinwood had none.

Jen Detweiler, a spokeswoman for state Auditor Betty Montgomery, said auditors will leave it up to the Ohio Department of Education to decide if a refund will be sought or if any other action will be taken.

Interim Cleveland schools Chief Executive Lisa Ruda said school officials have already been in touch with the state education department. Ruda said teams are checking and correcting attendance rates from the first week of last October, because the district has until early March to correct its count.

Joyce Hicks, a former director of data quality for the Cleveland schools when district, on March 6 will become director of accountability systems for Columbus Public Schools.

Debate statewide over how school districts report data arose after Cleveland city schools acknowledged last year enrollment figures were boosted by including children with excused absences.

Ohio Department of Education spokesman J.C. Benton said Hicks was warned that the method of calculating Cleveland's attendance rate was inaccurate. Under the method the attendance rate went from 89 percent in 2000-01 to 96.7 percent four years later, surpassing the required state standard of 93 percent.

Hicks resigned on Feb. 13, three days after applying for the Columbus job. The Columbus district said she is highly qualified to analyze student data and they dont hold her accountable for what happened in Cleveland.

"She was doing what was asked of her by a supervisor," said Columbus schools spokesman Greg Viebranz. "She was operating under direction from the chief information officer."

In a separate matter, Cleveland schools had to pay back $729,000 to the state last year for inflated bus-rider counts.

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