Upper Arlington City School District administrators may have illegally used taxpayer resources to aid a November 2012 levy campaign, public records obtained by Media Trackers suggest.
In February 2012, Upper Arlington City Schools Superintendent Jeff Weaver, district treasurer Andy Geistfeld, and communications director Dan Donovan met with leaders of the pro-levy PAC Citizens for Upper Arlington Schools to prepare for the campaign. The school officials planned the meeting – which was held in the school district’s offices – using district email accounts.
Also included in the on-campus meeting was Jerry Rampelt of Support Ohio Schools Research & Education Foundation (SOS), a nonprofit consulting company whose board of directors includes Ohio Education Association (OEA) president Patricia Frost-Brooks. OEA paid SOS $40,000 in fiscal year 2012 alone.
According to Ohio Revised Code (ORC) 3313.77, meetings on school property for purposes other than school district business must be open to the public. State law also requires equal access to public space.
Media Trackers contacted Upper Arlington City Schools to determine whether the February 2012 Citizens for Upper Arlington Schools meeting was public and whether anti-levy group Educate UA was permitted to hold meetings on district property, but received no response in time for publication.
After the meeting, Superintendent Weaver informed the Board of Education that the levy campaign would be paying $400 to the OEA-backed consulting firm for help increasing Upper Arlington property taxes.
“To a person we came away impressed with the research and resources offered by Support Ohio Schools,” Superintendent Weaver wrote in a weekly email update to the board.
“I can’t stress how impressed we all were (and for Dan, Andy and me it is not our first rodeo) with what SOS has to offer because of the group’s wide spread experience with numerous school district campaigns in Ohio,” Weaver added.
The superintendent continued, “At present I have asked our principals to get with their PTO presidents and select building liaisons to an eventual committee and shortly I will be talking with the leadership of UAEA and OAPSE to provide the same.”
UAEA is the Upper Arlington local of OEA, and OAPSE is the Ohio Association of Public School Employees – an affiliate of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).
That OEA works to assist tax hike campaigns should come as no surprise; Frost-Brooks was paid $267,916 in teachers’ mandatory union dues from September 2011 to August 2012, while executive director Larry Wicks was paid $222,167.
In addition to the legal implications of holding pro-levy meetings on school property, ORC 9.03 states that taxpayer resources may not be used to “publish, distribute, or otherwise communicate information” which “supports or opposes the nomination or election of a candidate for public office, the investigation, prosecution, or recall of a public official, or the passage of a levy or bond issue.”
ORC 3315.07 dictates that “no board of education shall use public funds to support or oppose the passage of a school levy or bond issue or to compensate any school district employee for time spent on any activity intended to influence the outcome of a school levy or bond.”
Caroline Lehmann, spokeswoman for Educate UA, declined to comment on potentially illegal school district coordination with the pro-levy campaign and a union organization devoted to passing tax hikes.
In a press release after the November 2012 levy’s defeat, Citizens for Upper Arlington Schools warned local taxpayers, “we’ll be back,” insisting it is “not okay to say ‘no'” to higher taxes.
Upper Arlington City School District officials’ apparent misuse of school resources in coordination with the Citizens for Upper Arlington Schools campaign resembles circumstances in both Westerville and Cincinnati.
A Media Trackers examination of public records revealed that Westerville City School District leadership secretly coordinated with a supposedly independent complainant to remove a grassroots tax-cut initiative from local ballots.
Westerville was assisted in its efforts by Bricker & Eckler, LLP attorney Rebecca Princehorn, who also serves as a board member for Support Ohio Schools.
In Cincinnati, the Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes (COAST) is involved in a years-long struggle against Cincinnati Public School District and local unions who argue that school resources may be used for tax levy campaigns as a matter of free speech.