Columbus, OH– The Electronic School of Tomorrow (ECOT) paid $588,000 in hush money to 201 former employees, according to records that the now-shuttered online charter school provided in response to a public records request.
Because ECOT was a public charter school, these severance packages were paid for with taxpayer dollars.
Filed by Common Cause Ohio and Innovation Ohio, the request came after a whistleblower refused to take the money, then told reporters that ECOT purchased and manipulated new software to extract millions of dollars from the state that it did not deserve. Ohio officials are attempting to recover more than $80 million from ECOT, and ECOT is in court, insisting it owes taxpayers no money at all.
All the money was paid out in 2017 as part of a “severance and release agreement,’’ the records show. In addition to “non-disclosure” clauses, the agreements also contained “non-disparagement” clauses.
“Public funds should never be used to pay hush money,’’ said Common Cause Ohio Executive Director Catherine Turcer. “A severance package is supposed to give employees a cushion when they leave – not hide problems from elected officials, administrators, the press and the public.’’
ECOT’s attendance padding has been referred to the FBI and Franklin County Prosecutor for further review, and the scandal has emerged as a central issue in this year’s statewide elections.
The agreement’s “non-disparagement” clauses stipulate that former employees receive severance packages only if they agree that they “have not and will not make statements to anyone that are in any way disparaging or negative towards ECOT, including disparaging remarks about individuals associated with ECOT or the service it provides.”
Stephen Dyer, a lawyer and Education Policy Fellow for Innovation Ohio, said the agreements are not standard.
“The agreements ban employees from making statements to ‘anyone that are in any way disparaging or negative toward ECOT, including disparaging remarks about individuals associated with ECOT or the services it provides,’” Dyer said. “ECOT’s lawyer notes that employees are free to talk with law enforcement. What he does not tell you is that these types of agreements cannot legally prevent people from cooperating with law enforcement.’’
The records request asked for the amount of hush money paid over a five-year period.
While ECOT said it fully complied with the request, charter school researcher Sandy Theis said she is aware of other former employees who signed non-disparagement agreements in exchange for money who are not included in the information that ECOT provided.
The documents turned over by ECOT are online here: