As state officials said there's a "strong likelihood" they'll refer Columbus school employees for criminal prosecution at the end of their student-data probe, the district confirmed yesterday that federal authorities also are investigating.
At the same time, the state investigation into whether Columbus manipulated its student data is changing: The district is being broken off from the statewide probe of other districts. State investigators also now are looking at whether Columbus schools employees changed students' grades after their teachers had entered them, perhaps from failing to passing.
Even as the district pledged full cooperation with the new federal probe yesterday, the state auditor's office used harsh words to accuse the district of interfering with its investigation and intimidating witnesses that its investigators have interviewed.
"A number of witnesses have been confronted by representatives of the administration," said the auditor's chief counsel, William J. Owen. He said that Robert "Buzz" Trafford, the district's attorney in the matter, "de-briefed" some interviewees, asking what questions the state asked and how the witnesses responded.
Afterward, the witnesses feared losing their jobs, Owen said. Some called the auditor's office, crying and scared, he said.
Yesterday's revelations about changes in the state investigation --and that criminal referrals likely are coming --came after the district released a back-and-forth exchange of letters between Owen and the lawyer representing the district in the attendance matter.
The letters show that the district has been pushing since October for state Auditor Dave Yost to hand over the names of students who he has found were improperly withdrawn from the school district.
In an interim report of his investigation released last month, Yost said that all 10 Columbus schools his office had examined showed evidence of "scrubbing" student data, or altering it without lawful reason. More than 300 students in those 10 schools had been inexplicably withdrawn, which meant their test scores and attendance data wouldn't count in the schools' totals. But the auditor's office has refused to tell Columbus which students were "scrubbed," saying its investigation isn't done yet.
The district has said it wants the names so it can understand what's wrong and fix whatever problems exist. Owen said that's bogus.
"They know what's broken. They do not need our documents or our witnesses to know how to fix it," Owen said yesterday. The obvious and quick fix, he told the district in a letter last week, would be to stop "dis-enrolling" students without documentation and to follow the law.
The district, in its letters to the auditor's office and in a written statement yesterday, denied meddling in the investigation. Trafford, whom the district retained in August for the data probe, acknowledged in a letter to Owen last week that he and other lawyers have spoken with some witnesses the state questioned.
They questioned the witnesses to help the district understand the issue, Trafford wrote; they were not "de-briefings" meant to discourage employees from opening up to state investigators.
"The district unequivocally denies that it has in any way interfered with the auditor's work and equally unequivocally states that it has cooperated fully in every respect with the auditor's efforts," Columbus schools spokesman Jeff Warner said in a written statement.
Warner said he isn't permitted to say what "federal authorities" the district has communicated with, although The Dispatch reported about three weeks ago that the FBI had launched its own data-scrubbing investigation.
The state's student-data probe is now in its sixth month. It began in Columbus after The Dispatch reported in June that some Columbus schools had changed massive amounts of student data at the end of the school year, and it soon expanded statewide. There have not been any "official" criminal referrals yet, Owen said yesterday. But, he said, the auditor's office has been able to "confirm data manipulation" in Columbus. The state also hasn't said which criminal charges could be brought, although Yost has said before that tampering with records is an applicable charge in this case.
An internal auditor's review of possible data manipulation in the district also has found problems.
Most of the state and internal auditors' work has focused on whether schools withdrew students, perhaps to improve the schools' state report cards. It's not clear yet how the new element --the student grade-changing --fits into the existing probes.
Changing individual students' grades wouldn't necessarily affect a school's standing on report-card measures unless the students are high-school seniors. If those students' grades were changed from failing to passing and doing so allowed the students to graduate, the action could affect graduation rates.
Owen wouldn't explain how the grade-changing was discovered or say who is believed to have made the changes.
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