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Accountability hard to enforce in school levy campaigns

By   /   October 30, 2014  /   News  /   No Comments

By Maggie Thurber | For Ohio Watchdog

Finney Law Firm photo

NO TEETH: Attorney Chris Finney says Ohio’s law prohibiting school boards from using public resources to promote property tax levies has no teeth.

Chris Finney knows a little something about accountability and making sure Ohio school districts follow campaign laws.

As the lead attorney and one of the founders of COAST (Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes), he’s taken the Cincinnati Public Schools to court many times to get them to comply.

The first time was in 2001 when the district put up levy campaign signs on school property. Now the district is under a broad agreement promising not to expend public resources for its levy campaigns.

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.”

Cincinnati isn’t the only district accused of using taxpayer-funded resources to promote more taxes.

Chris Myers was concerned when he received emails promoting a Sylvania City Schools levy and asking parents to volunteer on the campaign. The superintendent promised to provide training for school officials to ensure the law was being followed, but no discipline was imposed.

Brad Reynolds received text messages from Maumee City Schools promoting a fundraiser for the levy campaign committee. School Superintendent Gregory Smith told Toledo News Now the fundraiser wasn’t specifically for the Nov. 4 levy, and was instead for the Citizens for Maumee Schools campaign committee and that funds raised from the event would go toward funding levies in the future.

Myers filed a complaint with the state auditor, asking that findings for recovery be issued against the school district for any public funds expended. Reynolds said he intends to file a complaint with the Ohio Elections Commission.

Both Myers and Reynolds said they were doubtful their actions would be enough to ensure schools followed the law in the future.

Expecting school board members to enforce the law was “like asking other foxes to hold one fox accountable for raiding the hen house,” Myers said.

Finney agrees, which is why COAST demanded equal access. The group asked Cincinnati schools to display their anti-levy signs along with the district’s pro-levy signs. When the district refused, COAST sued in federal court, claiming a violation of the First Amendment, and won.

It was “as easy as pie,” Finney said.

Not every community has a group like COAST, and often there isn’t an organized effort to defeat a levy. Sometimes, like with Reynolds and Myers, it’s just citizens who want their local school board to follow the law.

Finney said the legal strategy of demanding equal access is hard to implement in such instances, but said COAST would gladly partner with any local activist to stop the abuse.

“We want to eradicate campaigning with public dollars across the state,” he said.

Lawsuits, while effective, aren’t the permanent solution, though they are the only legal route citizens can take right now. That’s because the statute has no teeth, Finney said.

“It’s illegal, but not a crime,” he said. “How can that be? The school administrators and teachers have powerful and connected lobbyists in Columbus. The legislators are loathe to do the right thing and put a stop to this.”

The right law, Finney added, “would stop this in its tracks,” and would also give taxpayer standing, with attorney fees, to citizens who see a violation.

In Ohio, taxpayers have standing against cities and townships, Finney explained, but not against school districts and townships.

“It’s like a blind spot in the law,” he said. “Even if we explicitly make spending tax dollars for campaigns a punishable crime, most local prosecutors, the state auditor and the state attorney general would, in most cases, refuse to take the case. It is a shame, but we have seen this violation go on for decades.”

Finney said a legislative fix would be easy and politically smart, but that too many legislators “lack the courage to do what they are really there for — protecting the public fiscally.”

Another part of the problem is not everyone agrees such actions are against the law.

Doug Haynam, an attorney and Sylvania city councilman, left a comment on Ohio Watchdog’s story about Maumee City Schools that said in part:

“The law prohibits the “use of public funds” not the use of existing facilities and resources. In this particular instance, there was no consumption of existing resources or expenditure of public funds for the communication. Indeed, the Revised Code specifically allows public school employees to be compensated to present financial information and other information about school activities in public forums even if there is a levy or bond issue pending (3315.07(C)(2). Accordingly, I do not believe that the ancillary use of school facilities, which facilities were originally acquired for legitimate school purposes, to communicate and promote a school levy in any way violates the prohibition against the “use of public funds”. Rather, the statute prohibits school boards from expending public funds on campaign materials or advertisements promoting a levy or bond issue. Nothing in the statute prohibits the use of existing resources to promote a levy.”

Finney called that argument “idiotic” and “arrogant.”

With that reasoning, he said, “I’ll start a hamburger stand on school property without paying rent. Since its ‘existing property,’ there’s no offense, right?”

That’s the kind of logic that results in districts violating the law, making it harder for citizens to hold them accountable, he added.

Finney did have some advice for citizens who encounter these types of violations:  Document it with photos and videos and don’t be afraid to call him or another attorney and take the district to court.

“When we have arrogant local officials engaging in such conduct, there’s nothing more fun than making them stand up in front of a federal judge and explain themselves,” he said. “That moment is … priceless.”

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Maggie formerly served as staff reporter for Watchdog.org.