(TNS) -- Records reveal a coordinated effort among Ohio Department of Education staff to falsely inflate evaluations of some charter-school sponsors, possibly in violation of state law, according to an initial review of the documents that were released Thursday.
While emails indicate that multiple agency employees appeared to know of former state Department of Education Director of School Choice David Hansen's grade-fixing scheme, there was no documentation of their reporting it to higher-ups including state Superintendent Richard A. Ross.
The department released nearly 100,000 pages of documents late Thursday in response to a public-records request made six weeks ago, and The Dispatch is still reviewing them. The documents did not appear to include any communications to or from Ross regarding the matter.
Ross said the records show that neither he nor Gov. John Kasich had any involvement in the rigging of charter-school sponsor evaluations. While Ross claimed to have no knowledge of the scam, emails show that some outside the department were asking for explanations.
"What in (the Ohio Revised Code) permitted ODE to select which schools to include in academic performance of the sponsor evaluation?" Colleen D. Grady, senior policy adviser for House Speaker Clifford A. Rosenberger, wrote in a July 11 email to education staffers.
State law "requires that sponsors be evaluated on their schools' academic performance. ... Why would ODE use a measure of academic performance that can be manipulated by non-academic factors?"
It was not immediately clear whether Grady got answers to her questions.
"I'm disappointed about all this personally. Very disappointed," Ross said Thursday.
"We had a breakdown in our system which undermined the progress we were making in holding charter schools accountable. Excluding e-schools didn't cross my mind. It's not what I believe; not what I'm about."
Hansen resigned in July, days after admitting during questioning by the Ohio Board of Education that he manipulated the evaluations. By excluding some poor-performing online and dropout recovery schools, sponsors appeared to be doing a better job of oversight than they actually were.
Hansen is the husband of Beth Hansen, Kasich's chief of staff in the governor's office until she left to manage the Republican's presidential campaign.
In an emailed statement to the Associated Press, Hansen said he was charged with implementing a new state law that "was not a model of clarity" and he did his best to create "the most practical design I could come up with" to achieve its goal.
"I certainly believed that I was acting in good faith and that the design created a reasonable and workable reporting process which was consistent with the goal of the statute as I understood it," he said. "Suggestions that my design was somehow 'illegal' ignore the ambiguity in the statute and the design's goal of accurately evaluating Ohio's charter sector."
Other items found in the documents:
--Text messages included hints that there was concern in the office with creating public documents. One message on July 16, appears to have been sent from a state data administration manager named Karlyn Geis to Sarah JanTausch, Hansen's assistant:
"The ratios are on your laptop. Someone needs to calculate the overall authorizer scores and walk them up to Melissa today. They have to be walked up, not emailed, not printed. Just handwritten on paper. Thanks!"
--In July 2014, Hansen and his team were discussing a still-in-the-works method of evaluating school sponsors, with Hansen apparently frustrated over generating ratings on three different sponsors based on non-academic factors.
"Then we will put them all down as getting 92 and being exemplary in agency commitment and go from there," Hansen wrote in an email.
Geis responded, "Can we assume you are joking about putting them down as a 92? (Looks of shock from others in the room)."
There was no response from Hansen.
The staff later produced estimated evaluation scores that listed one sponsor as exemplary and two other school sponsors as ineffective.
Kelsey Stephens, a data administration manager, emailed Hansen in March 2015, "These have tables with and without eSchools, the analysis excludes dropout recovery schools. Is this what you're looking for?"
--On Sept. 22, 2014, following a conference call with Hansen and other education department employees, Geis wrote "they wanted to see if there was a chance of having the legislature buy into what you want to do so that you can use the same methodology on report card data for traditional public schools."
Hansen responded: "Well, I'd like to first feel secure in being able to do what I do for just charters. The last thing I want is for the process to end up sinking our little bit of autonomy from the edu-blob because someone sees it and thinks that someone would oppose what we're trying to do."
It was unclear if they were discussing charter-school sponsor evaluations specifically.
--Hansen wrote in an email to a Cleveland charter-school leader on Dec. 26, 2013, saying, "I've been at (the Ohio Department of Education) for just 3 months but have a personal goal of protecting, if not growing, the autonomy to which charters are entitled and need in order to succeed."
Responding to her complaint about a negative designation, he added that he's hoping "we can get the people involved to spend more time on traditional public schools and leave charters alone."
Ross reiterated on Thursday that he has thrown out the five faulty evaluations and appointed a panel of three outside advisers to help ensure new reviews are done in compliance with state law.
Records from his office also were provided to the state auditor and inspector general's office at their requests, Ross said.
Before the release of the records, Kasich said that state officials continue to believe Hansen acted alone in scrubbing the grades of some school sponsors.
"It will be made clear how these schools are doing and we'll find out exactly what was involved in what (Hansen) was doing and why he was doing it," he said.
Kasich said that Ross, who has faced criticism from some elected State Board of Education members for rejecting their call for an independent investigation, "has my complete and total support."
"What we want (are) top-rated charter schools and when we thought that the numbers weren't right, Dick Ross talked to (Hansen) and he no longer works for the state," the governor said.
©2015 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.