Colombus City Schools ‘Data Czar’ Agrees to Plea Bargain Deal

Columbus, Ohio City Schools’ (CCS) former executive director of accountability, Stephen B. Tankovich, signed a plea agreement with Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O’Brien last week.  The so-called data czar for Columbus City Schools is accused of being the mastermind behind a year-long scheme designed to manipulate student data, according to an article by Jennifer Smith Richards and Bill Bush for The Columbus Dispatch.

Tankovich, 66, is the first to face charges in connection with the scandal.  Because he has no prior record, he probably will receive probation.

“What we were trying to accomplish was a conviction for the manipulation of records,” O’Brien told The Dispatch. “This process of manipulating figures that get reported to the state misrepresented the performance of kids to the citizens.”

The specific charge is that he planned to “facilitate a fraud”  using a system he created so that administrators could manipulate data.  Part of Tankovich’s plea deal is that he will be a witness in any other related prosecutions.  The next prosecution will probably be Gene Harris, former superintendent, who allegedly knew of his plan to alter student data.

“He is the architect. His plea is going to set the stage for everything that follows,” said state Auditor Dave Yost, who began investigating the district more than two years ago after The Dispatch reported that administrators were changing student data in Columbus. “The other shoes are going to start dropping like balloons in a convention hall.”

The plan that Tankovich researched and developed consisted of withdrawing any child who was absent for 10 days without an excuse.  Then the administrators could re-enroll the student.  The fact that the child had been withdrawn meant that the child was not enrolled for the full year.  This meant that his test scores and attendance records would not be reflected in school report cards.  By removing kids who were absent many times or had low test scores, the school’s academic standing would be improved.   This scheme went on for almost a decade.

“Dr. Gene Harris has worked diligently to avoid taking any responsibility,” says Bradley Davis Barbin, attorney for Michael Dodds, who oversaw 26 schools in the district as a regional executive director, and who changed large amounts of student data.

Harris, Barbin said, has engaged in a “million-dollar conspiracy to cover up her responsibility. She managed this process, and she used public dollars to do it. That’s what’s really wrong here.”

Barbin is alluding to her outside legal defense for which the district began paying approximately two years ago.

According to Paul Aker, reporting for WBNS, Tankovich says that it was the principals who began abusing his system.

 Tankovich says they have a financial incentive to cheat.  “Any time that you go to a market-based system where principals and teachers get incentives and higher pay based on their scoring, those are the manipulations that are going to occur.”

WTTE FOX28 aired a timeline of the events surrounding the CCS investigation, which included the following actions:

• On June 28, 2012, the state auditor announces the beginning of the the investigation into data manipulation at Columbus City Schools.

• Dr. Gene Harris announces she will retire at the end of the 2012-2013 school year.

• The state auditor finds evidence of data manipulation in CCS in October of 2012.

• Stanley Pyle, an assistant principal who, according to records, changed hundreds of grades, retires.

• Harris retires June 28, 2013.

• School Board President Carol Perkins announces retirement January, 2014.

• January 27, 2014 state auditor releases report on investigation.

• CCS announces it is taking steps to fire four principals who were involved in the data tampering.

• July 31, 2014, Tankovich accepts plea agreement to cooperate with the prosecutor’s office, state auditor, FBI, Columbus city attorney, and US attorney in the investigation.