The Ohio inspector general is investigating a troubled joint project by Ohio State University and the state Board of Higher Education to create a clearinghouse of online-learning materials.
State lawmakers mandated the project during the administration of former Gov. Ted Strickland.
An Ohio State spokesman confirmed Wednesday that the university is “aware of the investigation” and is cooperating. State Department of Higher Education spokesman Jeff Robinson would say only, “ If there is something that the IG finds troubling in regard to the clearinghouse that was established under the previous administration, we would certainly support their review.”
ProgressOhio, a liberal advocacy group, has contended for months that after Republican John Kasich became governor, the project funneled millions to companies owned by William Lager, a major donor to Republican politicians and founder of the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow online charter school. Another Lager company, IQ Innovations, was hired to develop the clearinghouse, called the Distance Learning Center. ProgressOhio presented its findings at a news conference Wednesday.
Neil Clark, spokesman for ECOT, said, “We are unaware of any investigation,” and he dismissed ProgressOhio’s claims as recycled and without merit.
Employees of the project said a Lager-connected supervisor retaliated against them after they complained that IQ Innovations wasn’t meeting its obligations and that its online-learning platform wasn’t working well. The supervisor, John D. Conley, Jr., once worked briefly as a consultant to Lager.
The employees complained under Ohio State’s whistleblower-protection policy in 2014, and the university’s Office of University Compliance and Integrity said that the employees “conveyed credible information that they faced significant retaliation after questioning the performance of IQ.” But because the office isn’t authorized to question employees of what is now called the Board of Higher Education, it could not “draw conclusions” about the whistleblowers’ complaints.
After that report, Ohio State’s Office of Human Resources investigated. That office did question board employees, but Conley, the chief target of the complaints, had left the board and refused to answer questions. That investigation found insufficient evidence to substantiate the complaints.
The distance-learning clearinghouse originated as part of Democrat Strickland’s first budget in 2007. It was to be a one-stop resource for digital education tools, curricula and other resources for Ohio K-12 schools. Strickland’s appointed higher-education chancellor, Eric Fingerhut, hired a company called Blackboard to develop the platform but canceled that contract in November 2010.
After Kasich took office in 2011, he replaced Fingerhut with Republican Jim Petro. Petro chose Lager’s IQ Innovations, which had been the second-place bidder, to take over the project.
Emails among employees indicate problems: ProgressOhio Executive Director Sandy Theis on Wednesday displayed emails from employees and from companies that wanted to create digital materials for the system. A December 2013 email from one board employee complained that iLearn, one part of the clearinghouse, contained no textbooks and that no publishers were under contract to provide any. The employee said that “many bugs remain to be fixed” in the system.
An email from an official of Pearson, an online-content publisher, said his company was ready to deliver material but could get no information from IQ Innovations about how to participate.
By the time the board decided not to enter into another contract with IQ Innovations, under new Chancellor John Carey in 2014, the company was paid $1.2 million for “enhancements” to fix problems with its platform, plus a $1.6 million share of a $6 million grant to develop e-textbooks. Taxpayers paid millions more to support the project between 2011 and 2015.
The platform will be phased out at the end of this school year.
Reporter Randy Ludlow contributed to this story.