Costs Mounting in Columbus, Ohio Student Data Investigation

Not taking steps to protect student data from unauthorized access can be an expensive proposition, as the school district of Columbus, Ohio is finding out. According to Jennifer Smith Richards of The Columbus Dispatch, the Columbus school board has already spent more than $500,000 to defend themselves against charges that Columbus City Schools officials tempered with student data in order to improve the district's standing on the state assessment system. This week, the board members voted to allocate a further $250,000 to cover the expense.

The state isn't the only entity now investigating the breech. The FBI entered the fray as well, and at least two parents have filed lawsuits against both the district and the school board. To protect itself the board hired the law firm of Porter Wright Morris & Arthur last year. The firm just presented its first bill since the start of the year – for $315,000.

The invoices show that 21 Porter Wright employees worked 1,665 hours between November and May on "governance and compliance issues," which include managing FBI and state investigators' subpoenas and records requests. The normal hourly rates for that work typically would be between $125 and $250, the invoices said, but Porter Wright instead billed $54.35 per hour, on average.

The work to defend the district from the parents' lawsuits is more expensive. The cost per hour to defend each of the two lawsuits was $248.44 and $138.80 respectively.

Even if the lawsuits are settled in the near future, the end to the state's investigation – which has been ongoing since last summer – doesn't seem to be in sight. The district blamed the broadening of the investigative focus for the mounting legal expenses. Initially, the state auditor was attempting to discover if district officials secretly withdrew low-performing students from school rolls in order to improve aggregate testing scores. Now the auditors are also investigating allegations that the same officials simply changed student grades without the knowledge of the teachers.

The auditor has issued more than 40 subpoenas for information and used warrants to seize records on two occasions.
Yost said this week that he's frustrated by the length of the investigation, too, but that he's not responsible for the extended timeline. That's the district's doing, Yost said: Witnesses interviewed by investigators have been intimidated and retaliated against by the district for speaking out and important records have been kept from auditors.

"This is the only school district in the state that has found it necessary to filter every last piece of information through a downtown law firm. And that's unquestionably slowed things dramatically," he said. Trafford said any prudent district would seek independent legal advice in these circumstances.

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