Watchdog: Follow the Money

Ohio citizen watchdog exposes school district's illegal tax hike campaign

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Education,Watchdog,Taxes,Ohio,Follow the Money

Chris Myers started getting emails about an upcoming Sylvania City Schools levy campaign, but he didn’t think much about it.

Myers signed up for the Ohio school system's updates because he has stepchildren in the system. A couple of months ago, those updates began to include solicitations for parents to help with the additional $3.8 million continuous levy, which would appear on the May 6 primary ballot.

He got an email telling him that pro-levy yard signs were available at the high school.

“I thought that wasn’t right. So I went back to look at the prior emails,” Myers said. “I didn’t sign up to get pro-levy notices — I wanted to get school information.”

Unofficial results from the May 6 vote showed the levy failed by some 500 votes.

The Ohio Revised Code says it’s illegal to “use public funds to support or oppose the passage of a school levy or bond issue.”

School employees cannot be compensated for “time spent on any activity intended to influence the outcome of a levy or bond.”

Myers noticed the emails were sent during regular school hours, meaning people were being paid by the schools for doing levy work.

Parents were asked to volunteer, sign up to work the polls and attend a short meeting at the school May 3 to pick up materials and lists for going door-to-door.

The school’s Google account was host to a spreadsheet, which volunteers were asked to complete.

As he looked further, Myers found the school district website contained a prominent link to the levy campaign.

That was illegal, as well, according to an Ohio Attorney General opinion.

“I contacted the superintendent and asked about the actions,” Myers said. “The superintendent said they weren’t supposed to do that and that he’d try to do better in the future.”

“We clarified with our Admin Team & staff members that personal email accts (sic) are to be used,” the email response said.

“Also, you are correct that the levy website shouldn’t be linked to the district website. Thank you for pointing this out. We have removed the levy website link. We’ll do better with this moving forward.”

The link was, indeed, removed.

But that’s not the end of the story. If the schools were so blatantly violating the law when it came to emails and volunteer spreadsheets, what else were they doing?

The more Myers learned, the angrier he got.

As it turned out, the levy campaign website is registered at the Southview High School address. The administrator is Sheryl O’Shea, technology director for the school system, and the contact is her school email.

According to the domain registry data, she created the campaign website on school hours.

Sylvania Superintendent Brad Rieger said he was not aware the levy website was registered at one of the high schools.

“That would be in the category of doing better as we go forward,” he said.

Staff later clarified that two campaign volunteers, who also happen to be employees of the district, used a free website service and donated the cost of the GoDaddy hosting services, so no school money was used for the website itself.

But who originally authorized the campaign link on the school web page? Rieger wouldn’t say.

“Ultimately I’m responsible for everything,” he said. “The levy committee is made up of community members and staff members. As soon as it was pointed out, we unlinked it right away. We hadn’t thought through the school resource part of that, and now we did and it won’t happen again.”

Rieger said he wasn’t copied on the emails.

“We asked the principals to get volunteers, but we didn’t think through how that was communicated in terms of using the school email,” he said.

“We attempt to do everything we can to follow the protocols. When it’s brought to our attention during the campaign, we make adjustments. We’ll obviously get tighter on this.”

But Myers isn’t sure.

“They should have known better,” Myers said. “They ask for levies constantly — it’s not like they haven’t done a levy in years. There’s no excuse for not following the law.”

Their previous request was for a new $4.9 million continuous levy. That measure failed in November 2010, but was approved by voters in May 2011.

“I bet they’ve done this all along,” he said. “That’s why I want to find the full scope of what’s going on — not just for Sylvania Schools but also for anyone else looking for guidance on this sort of thing.”

Maurice Thompson, an lawyer and executive director of the 1851 Center for Constitutional Law, said guidance for citizens who discover this sort of wrongdoing is definitely lacking.

“This is the modus operandi,” Thompson said. “It’s how every school operates. Sylvania is not an isolated incident. This is constantly happening across the state, and the problem we run into is that there is no way to enforce the law.

“It’s like a game of Whac-A-Mole where they get caught and promise not to do it any more, but then the illegal actions pop back up again the next time around.”

Thompson said that, while the law states violations are a first-degree misdemeanor like a DUI, “county prosecutors are elected and are usually in bed with the school boards and don’t want to upset the apple cart.

“Most times, the prosecutors don’t ever act on it, though the state auditor has been very good at including it in audit findings.”

Myers said he wasn’t looking to oppose the levy, but was shocked to see such a blatant and public disregard of the law.

“I abhor when any government does something like this,” he said. “If they’re this sloppy about a levy campaign, which has such clear instructions about what can and cannot be done, in what other areas might they be taking liberties?

Myers said he wondered whether other aspects of the curriculum and finances “are run in such a sloppy manner.”

Rieger dismissed those concerns.

“I have confidence in our decision making, and this is an area we can do better in,” he said.

Rieger said he would work to “make sure that resources — especially electronic — are totally separate from the levy campaign. That’s my commitment.”

Myers said he may follow up with the state auditor.

The auditor would handle “anything having to do with the expenditure of public funds,” a spokesman said. Individuals who come across questionable actions and suspect public money might have been used inappropriately are encouraged to fill out a fraud complaint.

"When a complaint is received, the auditor’s office will either follow up through a normal audit, a special audit or initiate an investigation. If it is outside their scope, they will refer the issue to the appropriate entity."

But Myers said he’s still going to be watching and suspects another attempt to pass the levy might be launched in November.

“This has opened my eyes and now I'm going to start paying more attention to the other parts,” he said.

Maggie Thurber is a reporter for Ohio Watchdog, which is associated with the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.
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