Like any public meeting, the ECOT school board meeting is supposed to be open to anyone who wants to attend. But trying to get into the building and then figure out what the unelected body is doing was a challenge Tuesday night at the online school’s posh South Side headquarters.
Board committee meetings began at 6 p.m. in the building off of South High Street, its hallways decorated with large photographs of Ohio’s GOP leaders: Gov. John Kasich, Auditor Dave Yost, Ohio Supreme Court Justice Terrence O’Donnell, lawmakers and others. But the section of the building where the committees were meeting was locked up tight.
After The Dispatch was able to gain entry to the building with the help of a security guard, a Columbus police officer working a security detail ordered the newspaper out, saying the committee meetings were not public. The Dispatch informed him that, under Ohio law, committee meetings are, in fact, open to the public. Eventually an ECOT employee allowed the reporter into the committee meetings, already in progress.
The board was being briefed that ECOT had repaid the state almost $14 million in tax dollars in the past four months, through deductions from the state’s educational payments for online students, and that ECOT has an employee pension liability of $137 million. ECOT has said it will close if the state Supreme Court doesn’t order Ohio to pay its bill for students it couldn’t document being actively enrolled.
Then the board meeting began, with members moving to a different, unlocked, part of the building.
The board immediately closed the meeting to the public —a Dispatch reporter was the only outsider present — for an executive session with an attorney handling the lawsuit against the state Department of Education. The session lasted close to an hour and a half. Among those in the closed meeting was Scott Kern, chief strategy officer for Altair Learning Management, the for-profit management firm owned by ECOT founder William Lager, which ECOT has paid tens of millions of dollars.
The board reopened the public meeting and took action on several board agenda items, such as changing policies on truants and dropouts. None of the details of these actions could be fully discerned because ECOT doesn’t provide copies of its agenda items being voted on, and its website’s electronic agenda locks down the documents, making them inaccessible to the public.
The board approved a five-year financial forecast with almost no debate. Brittny Pierson, who runs ECOT, said no copies of documents related to board actions could be provided following the meeting, including the five-year forecast or the policies. She suggested that The Dispatch get in touch with ECOT on Wednesday.