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State education department slams Portage education center

By Mike Sever | Staff Writer Published: August 28, 2014 12:00 AM

The state education department has accused the Portage County Educational Service Center of misleading parents, taxpayers and teachers by trying to open an unauthorized charter school in the Cincinnati area by using a defunct Youngstown-area school's state identification number to open a school more than 250 miles away in Hamilton County.

As a result, the Ohio Department of Education said it has cut off funding for the new school and will not authorize the disbursement of any federal grant funds to the Portage service center because federal law requires sub-grantees to comply with state law.

The Ohio Department of Education said Portage County ESC is trying to open the school, called Hope 4 Change, despite losing the authority to open new charter schools due to deficient academic achievement at schools operated by the local ESC.

It also says the contract for the Youngstown-area school expired more than a year ago, making it impossible to operate the new school under that contract.

"PCESC's suggestion that a charter suspended in SY 2010-2011 for a school located in Mahoning county could be revived in SY 2014-2015 for a school in Hamilton County fails the test of law, the test of common sense, and the test of protecting the interests of students, families and taxpayers," wrote Charles Hansen, executive director of the Office of Quality School Choice.

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Also, the state said the ESC was properly applying the rules for "converting" a pre-existing school into a charter school.

"PCESC is not only 'converting' a building nearly 250 miles from its offices in Ravenna, it is trying to 'convert' a building it has never used for any purpose at any point" and for which PCESC does not have a lease, the state said.

In the letter to Dewey Chapman, superintendent of the Portage County ESC, Hansen said the ESC could not open the school in Cincinnati because the school is outside the ESC's service area. The General Assembly recently prohibited an ESC from sponsoring a school outside its service area, or a contiguous county, Hansen wrote.

Hansen's letter also said the service center failed to provide information to the department in a timely manner prior to contracting with a new charter school. It also said the center "failed to apply a rigorous application process that would protect the health and safety of students, assure the school's academic rigor and thoroughly vet the proposal for its fiscal viability."

Calls seeking comment were not immediately returned by Chapman or Cheryl Emerich, executive director of the service center which has offices in Ravenna.

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The state education department said it was reporting Chapman and Emerich to the state's Office of Professional Conduct, which investigates complaints about educator misdeeds, because of the center's actions.

John Charlton, a spokesman for the state education department, said he could not comment whether an investigation was in progress.

Tom Biltz, an ESC board member, said "This is all news to me." He said that as of Wednesday he had not heard of difficulties with the state and nothing was discussed at the board's meeting last week.

"My initial reaction is that this is not accurate information. I really believe in the integrity of Dewey and Cheryl. I cannot fathom that they would try to enter into an agreement like this that was illegal. They're above that. That's not their character," he said.

"We would never do something that was not sanctioned by the ODE. We just wouldn't do that," Biltz said.

Dale VanVoorhis, board president, said he was aware the center was opening an office in the Cincinnati area with staff to operate a "whole group" of charter schools.

"That is news to us" he said about the state's claim the service center was using the identification of a closed grade 7-12 school from the Youngstown area to open a K-12 school in Hamilton County.

The education department said the new operator hired by the service center did not have any experience running a K-12 school.

The education department is demanding that the Portage service center drop any activities toward opening the new school, such as hiring teachers and staff.

The department also instructed the center to work with other school providers in the Cincinnati area to transfer the students it has already registered at Hope 4 Change.

According to the state education department, the Portage ESC lost its authority to open new charter schools twice in the past three years because of poor academic performance of its schools. The state said Portage ESC-sponsored schools ranked in the lowest 20 percent of achievement.

The Portage County ESC is a service provider and primary source for a wide variety of support services for administrators, school boards, educators and students.

It has services in online learning, educational planning, fiscal and business management, gifts programs, special education, supervision, professional development and more.

Contact this reporter at 330-298-1125 or msever@recordpub.com

Facebook: Mike Sever, Record-Courier

Twitter: @MikeSever_RC

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