Court of Appeals Lays Smackdown on ODE
Even Democrat Brunner Sides with ECOT
By Connor Brown
Yes, you read that right. Yesterday, a three judge panel of Ohio’s Tenth District Court of Appeals in Franklin County ruled that the Ohio Department of Education’s arrogant leadership improperly denied ECOT an appeal of its findings regarding school funding.
In ECOT v. Ohio State Board of Education, the court held that “any impacted party” may appeal the State Board of Education’s enrollment findings, which of course includes ECOT. The ruling means that the now closed online community school can finally appeal ODE’s May 10, 2017 decision which (erroneously) concluded that ECOT underreported its actual FTE numbers.
The opinion is filled with legalese, but in the end, its conclusion is basic. For simpletons like Jim Siegel at the Dispatch who still trip on the basic facts of the case: The court held that ODE staff lawyer Diane Lease is actually not the Queen of Ohio, and is not entitled by birthright to serve as charter school judge, jury, and executioner. She is defrocked and denied from trying to lock schools out of the courthouse who would dare challenge her edicts. Instead, the court held, ECOT has every right to access the justice system and challenge unelected ODE bureaucrats who would rather be accountable to no one.
As the court recounts, in 2016 ODE completed a highly disputed audit of ECOT’s student FTE data, claiming that the embattled online charter school had “inflated” its enrollment figures by over 243 percent. ECOT vehemently denied the findings and appealed to the State Board of Education, which designated an ODE hearing officer to consider the appeal.
ODE’s handpicked bureaucrat concluded (you guessed it!) that ECOT’s actual FTE numbers were only a fraction of its reported numbers because the school was counting enrolled kids instead of documented hours each student spent actually on the computer.
It was based on this finding that the Department decided to claw-back over $60,000,000 from ECOT in what it called “overpayments.” Of course, these clawbacks (and ODE’s insistence on a payment schedule that would make even the most unscrupulous payday lender blush) put the school into insolvency and led its sponsor to pull the plug. Poof. 12,000 kids were tossed out of their school overnight, mid-school year. Thousands remain totally unaccounted for in Ohio’s education system—anonymous drop-out statistics living “in the shadows,” as our absentee governor might say.
After the bureaucrat’s utterly predictable, pre-ordained “finding,” things got really strange. When ECOT appealed the decision, Judge Guy Reece of the Franklin County Court of Common Pleas actually ruled that the opinion was “unappealable.” He called it a “final” decision under Ohio law. In so doing so, Reece issued a bizarre ruling claiming that the presence of the word “final” in one relevant statute precludes any otherwise available appeal mechanism. (No, we are not making this up).
It was this last bit of legal buffoonery that even a Democrat on the Tenth District Court of Appeals could not stomach. Judge Jennifer Brunner’s majority opinion concludes: “With the law in equipoise, we hold that ECOT is entitled to the opportunity to dispute not just the substantive and procedural merits of their action … but also to appeal the particular findings and decisions of the administrative adjudication, especially as to the “claw back” of funds already appropriated and distributed by the State of Ohio.”
In other words, ODE and Judge Reece got it wrong, and the out of control administrative state that US Supreme Court Justice Gorsuch has famously lamented has been tamed just a bit in Ohio. The bureaucrats at ODE are now on notice that their dictates can be challenged in court. Every school in Ohio, and by extension every private sector company in the state that has ever had a dispute with a brainless state agency now has a fresh case citation on their side.
Or better yet, perhaps next time Lease or Gratz or Struble or some other faceless state worker hoping to throw some weight around until they can finally collect PERS will think twice before letting their arrogance get the best of them and insisting they are above the law. They are most certainly not.