COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) -- Federal authorities have joined the investigation of a central Ohio school district that's at the center of a statewide attendance-tampering probe, and state officials now say criminal referrals are likely.
The Columbus City Schools released a statement Tuesday saying that school officials have confirmed federal authorities have gotten involved in the probe into whether attendance and enrollment data of poor-performing students was manipulated to boost district performance rankings. Such rankings can affect government funding and employee bonuses.
The district did not specify which federal agency was involved, but said it intends to fully cooperate.
Ohio Auditor Dave Yost's office is also investigating.
Yost's top lawyer sent a letter to the district Thursday indicating the Columbus schools will be separated from other schools being investigated as part of a statewide review.
"The reason for this action is that unlike the statewide audit, there is a strong likelihood that at the conclusion of the CCS investigation, individuals will be referred for criminal prosecution," wrote chief legal counsel William Owen in the letter obtained Tuesday by The Associated Press.
Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O'Brien said Tuesday he had not yet seen any referrals.
Yost initially took his probe statewide because three separate districts around the state, most prominently Columbus, were questioned for irregularities in the handling of attendance data.
He has issued two reports based on that probe, one identifying five districts -- again, including Columbus -- where his auditors had found irregularities and the other that turned up no new findings.
Thursday's letter was part of a written exchange between Yost's office and the district that began in early October, after the first round of audit findings was released.
In the letters, obtained by the AP through a public records request, Columbus Superintendent Gene Harris asked Yost for the names of the 337 students whose records he had identified has irregular.
Harris, who has announced she'll resign after this year, wrote on Oct. 8 that "we simply do not understand why the Auditor's office will not provide the identity of the 337 student's whose files it found to be problematic and why the Auditor's office will not say what the problem was with each."
Owen, who is Yost's point man on the probe, questioned why Harris was asking for information to be returned to the district that had been provided by the district in the first place.
"You are now advising that you have been unable to take steps to insure the integrity of the enrollment information ... being 'created' by your administration, including upper management and principals district wide," Owen wrote on Oct. 12. "Permit me to suggest, the facts are before you."
The district at that point involved its own attorney, Robert Trafford, in the exchange. He called Harris' request "simple and appropriate."
"The various inferences, accusations, and mischaracterizations of things she has said do not answer her question, nor do they advance an understanding or resolution of the issues under investigation," Trafford wrote on Oct. 29. He characterized Yost's reasons for denying the district's request for information as "obviously tortured excuses."
Owen wrote in last week's letter that grades are purposely being changed by district employees, "with some students unaware they have actually 'achieved' a better grade than records by their teacher." He warned of the likely criminal referrals and said Harris had been repeatedly asked to stop interfering with the investigation by what he described as her debriefing and intimidating witnesses interviewed by the state.
Trafford responded in a letter written the same day: "Let me be very clear, we are not aware and do not believe that anyone acting on behalf of the District has interfered in any way with your investigation or in any way intimidated any witness or potential witness. The exact opposite is true."