After many years of poor oversight from the Ohio Republican majority (several of whom were arguably bought-and-paid-for pols) and hundreds of millions of taxpayers’ dollars, the academic boondoggle known as ECOT appears to be meeting its demise.

More than any one person, taxpayers can thank William Phillis.

Phillis is the executive director of the Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy in School Funding. He has been a decades-long champion for the hundreds of public school districts – and their respective students – in Ohio.

I first interviewed Phillis in the early 1990s, though neither one of us really remembers much about that interview. In recent years, I’ve come to know and appreciate Bill Phillis through the Fort Hill Christian Youth Camp, where he serves as a board member and occasional zip-liner at the bucolic camp in southeastern Highland County. (For the record, I have zip-lined with Bill and fellow FHCYC board member Gary Wyckoff.)

Phillis has written hundreds of editorials and news releases about ECOT (Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow) and its cozy relationships with Ohio lawmakers, mostly Republicans, since they hold majorities in the House and Senate in Columbus.

He has gotten the attention of The Akron Beacon Journal, which has been way ahead of the curve on ECOT reporting, and The Columbus Dispatch, which covers the Statehouse about as well as any other medium. A quick online search of ECOT or Bill Phillis on our website will show that The Highland County Press has reported extensively on the issue as well.

In July 2015 (http://www.highlandcountypress.com/Content/Default/Letters-to-Editor/Article/Follow-the-money/-3/87/28479), Phillis explained why Ohio House leadership likely derailed House Bill 2, which included a “modicum of charter school reform.”

“Tax funds have likely made White Hat Charter school operator David Brennan and ECOT operator Bill Lager very, very rich,” Phillis wrote. “The charters that these fine, civic-minded gentlemen operate, generally speaking, perform at a pathetically low level.

“Brennan's total take on tax funds for charters since the beginning is in the range of $1 billion. Lager has not been in the business as long but is within reach of $1 billion total. This is money extracted from school districts, thus, harming school district students. This enormous financial drain from school districts would be more tolerable if their charter schools were outperforming local school districts.”

Phillis went on to mention some of the donations these groups made to certain House and Senate leaders, including state lawmakers Cliff Rosenberger, Ron Amstutz, Barbara Sears, Jim Buchy and Keith Faber.

“This pay-to-play scenario probably explains why House leadership derailed House Bill 2,” Phillis said.

Ohio attorney general candidate Steve Dettelbach said in a recent statement: “The damage done by ECOT and the career politicians who enabled its scam keeps piling up. Taxpayers are out tens of millions of dollars – or more – that were meant for Ohio kids. We cannot allow ECOT and its owners – and the politicians who enabled it – to simply slip away with all that money and no accountability for what they did.”

This month, an Akron Beacon Journal editorial (https://www.ohio.com/akron/editorial/editorials/beacon-journal-ohio-com-editorial-board-good-riddance-to-ecot) put the cheese on the cracker as ECOT closed, putting many students and families in a state of flux.

“All of this could have been avoided if the state had been watchful and responsive from the start, when ECOT opened in 2000,” The Akron Beacon Journal wrote. “Unfortunately, the state waited until 2016. And when it finally got serious about looking behind the curtain? It found more than the school’s already evident record of poor academic performance. It discovered nothing less than financial fraud. … When the state did cast a closer eye, it found that ECOT wildly overstated its attendance. Of the roughly $100 million in public funds the school received for the 2015-16 academic year, 60 percent wasn’t deserved.”

The Beacon Journal notes that as “far back as 2001, Jim Petro, then the state auditor, raised questions about ECOT’s practices after an attendance audit. Why was ECOT allowed to operate in this way? William Lager, the founder of the school, saw how the Statehouse worked. He and allies have ranked among the leading donors of political money to Republicans, who have been in charge since 2000 except for a brief moment. Republican leaders, in effect, took the money and looked the other way. Some even celebrated ECOT. John Kasich, Dave Yost, Cliff Rosenberger and William Batchelder, among others, have attended its graduation ceremonies.”

In other words, as Bill Phillis wrote here in July 2015: “Follow the money.”

Bill Bush, reporting for The Columbus Dispatch (http://www.dispatch.com/) on Jan. 21, quoted Phillis about the state’s clear failure to provide oversight on the charter: “‘It took the state almost two decades to figure out that there’s a scam going on,’ said Phillis, a former Department of Education administrator who is now executive director of the Ohio Coalition for Equity & Adequacy of School Funding. ‘How blind can the state be? It was as if a bear was at the door, but they didn’t look out the window.’”

They didn’t look because they didn’t need to look. They knew. They all knew. They’ve known for years. Again, follow the money.

As Bush reported: “Starting in 2010, as ECOT had built up a record of consistently rock-bottom state report card results, its founder, William Lager (who ‘showered politicians with campaign cash’) began buying real estate: a $433,500 waterfront home on Senecaville Lake in Noble County; a $995,000 house in Upper Arlington; a $3.7 million house in Key West, Fla., with a pool and two-story cabana. It was a remarkable story for a man who reportedly dreamed up ECOT on the back of a napkin at a (Columbus) West Side Waffle House while he was largely broke after a previous business failure.”

One has to wonder how many Ohio politicians have enjoyed a cold lager – or something stronger – at any of these opulent estates. Didn’t the present House talker travel to Florida for one of his political fundraisers?

Is it any wonder, as The Cincinnati Enquirer’s Jessie Balmert reported this month (https://www.cincinnati.com/story/news/politics/2018/01/24/ohio-no-one-wants-gov-john-kasichs-endorsement-including-his-former-running-mate-who-has/1060072001/): “In the Republican primary for Ohio governor, no one apparently wants Kasich's endorsement – including the candidate who has it (supposedly Lt. Gov. Mary Taylor).”

There are reasons. None of them all that honorable.

According to Balmert’s report: “During (Taylor’s) speech at the (Clermont County GOP) endorsement meeting, she said that she has not seen the governor for about a year and that Kasich is endorsing DeWine.” This was attributed to Dave Uible, Clermont County GOP chairman.

Jon Husted, who is Mike DeWine’s running mate, reportedly called on modern technology to set the record straight: "Siri, who did John Kasich endorse in the governor's race?" Husted asked his iPhone. An article from The Enquirer popped up, titled ‘John Kasich backs Mary Taylor for Ohio governor.’”

Siri might have added “Sorry about your luck, Mary.”

The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer weighed in on the ECOT debacle as well. (See http://www.cleveland.com/opinion/index.ssf/2018/01/at_the_root_of_ohios_ecot_fail.html#incart_2box_opinion.)

"There can't be any debate over what the ECOT mess has taught Ohio's taxpayers: Money talks at the Statehouse," The Plain Dealer wrote. "At every turn in the regulatory road, ECOT's mainly Republican enablers looked the other way because, in effect, that's what they were paid to do – legally, through campaign donations."

Unless a capable Libertarian appears on this year’s Ohio gubernatorial ballot, I will not be voting for any candidate in the primary. And if, as most anticipate, the GOP ticket ends up being DeWine/Husted, it’s doubtful that I’ll be voting for the next governor come November. It reminds me too much of Bob Taft’s second campaign against Cuyahoga County’s Tim Hagan in 2002.

Once again, I’ll just sit this one out.

Rory Ryan is publisher and owner of The Highland County Press, Highland County's only locally owned and operated newspaper.