Ohio District Tried to Buy Off Auditor

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The Columbus City Schools lost two pages of the personnel file on its former internal auditor, who said this month she was fired in 2005 for trying to investigate data rigging.

The missing pages turned out to be those in which the district tried to buy her silence.

Former internal auditor Tina Abdella refused to sign the separation agreement that included a confidentiality clause that was to be paid by taxpayers.

Documents show Abdella was assigned to her home just as she geared up to investigate anonymous tips saying that the district was changing student attendance data to improve its state report cards.

Seven years later, that investigation is taking place: A different district internal auditor, the state Department of Education and the state auditor are now probing Columbus’ data operation after The Dispatch reported in June that several current and former district officials were alleging a conspiracy to rig the numbers. The probe has spread statewide.

On Aug. 2, the district released two pages of Abdella’s four-page separation agreement. On Thursday, in response to a Dispatch request, the district’s spokesman said the other two pages were missing from the file. Yesterday, the district found the pages with the help of a private attorney who had drafted the agreement for them.

Those missing pages detail a contract that would have bound Abdella to “refrain from any publication, written or oral, of a defamatory, disparaging, or otherwise derogatory nature” against the board and other district officials. It also would have barred a list of district officials from bad-mouthing Abdella.

She would have received a lump sum equal to two month’s salary; the money the district would have paid toward her health-care, dental and vision plans; the value of unused vacation days; her car allowance; a $9,800 retirement contribution; and $7,000 in deferred compensation. A Dispatch story from 2005 placed the total value of the package at around $49,000.

Abdella and the district would also have agreed not to sue one another.

Abdella told The Dispatch that just as she was about to begin a major audit of the district’s student-data reporting based on anonymous letters in 2004, she was steered off the case by Superintendent Gene Harris and the then-Board of Education. Harris and then-board President Stephanie Hightower denied the charge.

Abdella received a letter “criticizing accountability data related to attendance processes” in October 2004, according to a timeline of events released by the district’s current internal auditor in response to an Ohio Public Records Act request.

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In November 2004, Abdella announced that she would start the audit the following month, and would begin by interviewing Steve Tankovich—the now re-assigned data chief. Harris now says principals have told her Tankovich trained them to change data.

But on Dec. 3, 2004, Harris canceled the meeting with Tankovich and called in the state Department of Education to handle the investigation instead of Abdella.

On Dec. 21, 2004, Abdella received a letter from Hightower assigning her to home because she hadn’t done enough audits, she had not lived up to her work plan, and she communicated inconsistently with board members. She remained at home until her contract ran out the next year.

The Department of Education reviewed only the district’s policies, not its practices. It delivered a glowing report, and six months later Harris hired the lead state investigator at a substantial pay raise.

Vol. 32, Issue 03

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