Data rigging hangs over Columbus school-levy vote

The Columbus Dispatch – October 28, 2013

Columbus City Schools’ data-rigging scandal involved deliberate cheating and hurt students, and those responsible should face criminal charges, respondents say in a new poll.

A challenge for those supporting a 9.01-mill levy on the Nov. 5 ballot: 53 percent of likely voters say it should not be backed until the investigation is complete, according to a poll by Saperstein Associates for The Dispatch.

A third (34 percent) agree with the levy proponents’ contention that “the levy is the fix” to the district’s problems.

Yet the levy itself is deadlocked, with 45 percent in favor, 44 percent against and 11 percent undecided.

Martin D. Saperstein, head of the polling firm, sees a danger sign in the numbers for levy backers.

He said voters could be thinking, “I’ll vote against it this time, let them finish the investigations, adopt some of the recommendations that don’t cost a lot of money, and then we’ll see next time about voting on the levy.

“You could be in a holding pattern education-wise while they clean up the mess or convince people they need the money.”

But waiting isn’t an option: A change in state law that paved the way for a number of sweeping changes to the Columbus district requires the vote in eight days.

The poll shows that levy support is inversely proportional to the amount of attention voters are paying to the data scandal. In other words, the more attention people say they are giving to the scandal, the less likely they are to vote for the levy.

Younger voters are paying less attention, the poll shows, and they show stronger support of the proposal — along with fact that they are more likely to be parents of school-age children. Older voters, those most apt to read the newspaper, are paying more attention and more likely to vote no — although the fact that many are on a fixed income likely plays a role as well.

The state auditor began investigating Columbus schools in July 2012 after The Dispatch detailed how school officials were “scrubbing” data to temporarily remove poorly performing students’ test scores and attendance records, which made the district look better on the state’s report card. The FBI also is probing the scandal, and the state Education Department will take a turn once the auditor and federal authorities are done. Officials also are looking at changed grades and other possible irregularities.

Respondents clearly dismissed attempts to justify the data rigging and other questionable actions.

Fewer than a third said the irregularities could be the result of honest mistakes or unusual but legitimate circumstances; 56 percent see deliberate cheating.

“It’s too big to be a mistake,” said survey respondent Colleen Lostus, 65, of Victorian Village. “I think it was to make themselves look better and to get their funding. I’m not sure that it was a new practice.”

Nearly 3 out of 4 said the wrongdoers should face criminal charges. And more than 3 in 5 dismiss contentions that the cheating did not hurt students.

Former Superintendent Gene Harris “should have paid more of a price for the way things were,” Lostus said. “She’s responsible for what her people do.”

Elizabeth Jones, 35, who lives near Scottwood Elementary on the East Side, doesn’t think the problems have been corrected despite a long list of actions cited by school leaders.

“I’m sure they’ve gotten rid of people and moved things around, but … I don’t know that they’ve fixed it,” she said. “You need to make sure everything’s being accounted for. It took five weeks for the Columbus public school system to even start calling me about my daughter not being in school.”

Retired Westerville elementary schoolteacher Judy Mead, 63, of the North Side said it was obvious Harris’ “leadership wasn’t working. I think they need to make a few more changes down the line, and that will be dependent on the findings of the auditor. It’s more than just a financial matter at this point.”

But Mead, who volunteered in Columbus schools and had two daughters who graduated from them, also defended school officials to some extent.

“I think that the larger urban schools were probably led to believe that they had to manipulate the figures or they were going to be taken over by the state. I think it was driven by the test craziness. They’re not the only ones that were cheating on attendance figures and grades and things like that. Some is legitimate grade changes. Kids jump in and out of school, and it’s very difficult to compare figures like that.”

Pearl Clopton, 88, of the East Side, is among the minority that gave school officials the benefit of the doubt.

“I think maybe if they made a mistake, it may have been an honest mistake,” said Clopton, who has two great-grandchildren in school. “I don’t know details. I don’t think someone would deliberately do anything to harm the students, where their learning is concerned. I don’t know what’s going on. I hope whatever it is, they’ll get it all straightened out.”

John Martin, 54, of North Linden said he already has cast a vote against the levy, but the data scandal didn’t play a role.

“I know that things like that happen,” the North Linden resident said. People got overzealous, “fudged some things.”

The Saperstein telephone poll — including landlines and cellphones — of 803 Columbus City Schools likely voters from Oct. 7-19 has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.4 percentage points. Results were slightly weighted to conform to known demographics. The response rate was 41 percent.