The troubled Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow could shut down as early as next week after its long-time sponsor decided to sever its relationship with the school due to the online school's growing financial troubles.
Ohio charter schools cannot operate without a sponsor, an organization that collects up to 3 percent of a school's state funding and is responsible for the school's performance and compliance with state law.
The Educational Service Center of Lake Erie West, ECOT's long-time sponsor, informed school officials this week that it has initiated proceedings to suspend ECOT operations "at or near the end of the current semester" and terminate its sponsorship contract, said Apryl Morin, executive director of Lake Erie's Community Schools Center.
ECOT's semester ends next Thursday, Jan. 18.
"The ESC will work closely with ECOT and (the Department of Education) throughout the closure process in the hopes of minimizing any negative impact these proceedings may have on ECOT’s currently enrolled students and their families," Morin said.
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In a letter to staff on Wednesday, ECOT Superintendent Brittny Pierson wrote, "I regret to inform you that due to failed negotiations with the Ohio Department of Education, ECOT's sponsor, Educational Service Center of Lake Erie West and their board have voted to suspend ECOT's charter. We are working on an appeal to the sponsor."
ECOT spokesman Neil Clark said the school is still fighting to remain open. The school reportedly has five business days to rectify the situation.
“ECOT is trying to negotiate with (Lake Erie West) to come to some other conclusion,” he said, adding that ECOT was notified Tuesday night of it's sponsor's decision to drop the school.
Pierson told staff that they will soon be given information on how this impacts them and students and the next steps. "We remain dedicated to our students and families."
ECOT, a statewide online school opened in 2000, has become a lightning rod for controversy over the past two years, with a spotlight on its poor academic performance, nearly $200 million in payments to companies run by school founder Bill Lager, plus a highly publicized fight with the state over its inability to verify its enrollment largely through log-in data.
That lack of enrollment verification prompted the Ohio Department of Education to order ECOT to repay about $80 million over two school years for students who failed to participate in the state-minimum 920 hours of educational opportunities.
The school is fighting the Department of Education in court in a case currently before the Ohio Supreme Court, which refused to halt the state's monthly collection of repayments while the case is pending. That deduction has totaled $2.5 million per month just for the $60 million owed for the 2015-16 school year. The remaining $20 million is under administrative appeal.
Morin said Lake Erie West is aware that the school has pursued multiple options to help it remain open this school year, and she specifically noted the Supreme Court's denial of ECOT's request for temporarily relief.
ECOT has argued in court filings that the repayments would likely force it to shut down, possibly as soon as February or March.
Not only is the school bleeding money, but Morin said ECOT recently informed Lake Erie West that it will be unable to secure a bond for its fiscal officer as of February.
"Because maintaining a bond for the fiscal officer is a requirement for continued operation of a community school, and given ECOT’s unequivocal declarations that it cannot afford to remain open for the remainder of the school year, the ESC has initiated proceedings to suspend ECOT’s operations," Morin said.
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But regardless of whether the state allows ECOT to find a new sponsor, its financial troubles likely would remain a barrier. The Ohio Supreme Court is set to hear oral arguments in the school's lawsuit on Feb. 13.
More than 20,000 students generally cycle through ECOT in a given school year, though state data show a number enroll for short periods or infrequently log into the school's academic system.