Former Columbus Super Harris Charged with Dereliction of Duty

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Former Columbus, Ohio school Superintendent Gene Harris will be charged with dereliction of duty. According to Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O’Brien, the charge is a misdemeanor and is in connection with the district’s student-data fraud scandal.

It comes two and a half years after the widespread  falsifying of student records in order to make schools appear to be higher-performing. Harris retired in 2013.

Jennifer Smith Richards, writing for The Columbus Dispatch, reports that O’Brien and Harris’ attorney, Yvette McGee Brown, confirmed this week that the agreement had been finalized and that Harris would plead “no contest”, which means no admission to guilt, but the understanding that the case is strong enough to support a conviction. The second-degree misdemeanor carries a penalty of 90 days in jail and/or a $750 fine, and the attorneys have agreed to have the judge decide the penalty. Added to the agreement is that Harris will cooperate in investigations and offer testimony in others as necessary.

There is no evidence to prove that Harris ordered her employees to falsify data, and there is no evidence strong enough to show that she knew about the tampering. Harris insists that she knew nothing of the fraud.

“People know how much I care about Columbus City Schools. They know that. They have to know that. Why wouldn’t they tell me that there was an action going on that was so horrible that needed to be stopped?” she said when questioned by The Dispatch in mid-June of 2012.

O’Brien simplifies the nature of the charge by saying the CEO of the Columbus school district did not notice that the reports were inaccurate.

She is one of three school officials to face criminal charges linked to the data-rigging, which a state audit described as a “culture of data manipulation and intimidation” that went on for many years. Tom Borgerding of WOSU, NPR, says that Harris’ plea of “no contest” means that she will no longer be subject to possible federal prosecution. When, in June of 2012, she became aware of the widespread attendance and grade changes, Harris maintains that she ordered it to be stopped.

WOSU also reports that it was January 28, 2014 when Ohio Auditor Dave Yost revealed in a presentation the results of an 18 month investigation into the altering of student records. He referenced the Kingswood Data Center, contracted by the district, where data was manipulated at the command of the former “data czar” Steve Tankovich. Yost said that the investigation showed that Tankovich even scrubbed data himself at the center. It was Tankovich who was in charge during the time that the information was being tampered with, and the information factors into state report cards, government funding, and employment bonuses.

In total, 15 people were put on leave or left the district, and, at the time, Dan Good, current superintendent of Columbus City Schools, created a list of 17 steps which outlined changes and improvements he was making to prevent something like this from ever happening again.