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OH: Who says it’s 2012? Schools hide costs behind weird lie

By   /   August 7, 2012  /   1 Comment

By Tony Brown | For Ohio Watchdog

COLUMBUS — The Gregorian calendar, the one recognized by every country in the world, doesn’t apply to Ohio’s Olentangy Local School District, which makes a habit of wasting taxpayer money despite the efforts of one watchdog member.

Olentangy Local School District superintendent Wade Lucas refuses to explain why he won’t follow state law.

According to a lawyer for the suburban Columbus school district, it might not actually be 2012. Which means, the lawyer says, that the school district doesn’t have to conduct its business in the public view.

That’s just the beginning of the school-board shenanigans in Olentangy.

But first, the lawyer. He’s come up with the lamest – and inadvertently the funniest – excuse for why government bodies that spend public money don’t have to operate in public.

The lawyer in question, one Gregory B. Scott, argued that he didn’t have to give The Columbus Dispatch a labor contract agreement because the agreement existed only in “the conceptual sense.”

Dispatch reporter Collin Binkley dug up the proof that the board had already paid Scott $276 to review “a revised, complete tentative agreement” six days prior.

Hardly sounds “conceptual,” right? Here’s what Scott said he meant:

“There is a ‘tentative agreement’ in the conceptual sense, much like the conceptual notion that this is the ‘year 2012′ – in fact, it takes the Earth more  than 365 days to circle the sun, and whether it’s 2012 depends on what religion or culture is keeping track.”

Scott apparently puts his faith in the Maya calendar, last used in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. That’s the one that calls for the world to end on Dec. 21, 2012.

Scott’s right, in that it takes 365.2425 days for the earth to circle the sun, meaning we skip leap year three times every four centuries. Good thing they thought of that back in 1582.

If there were any legal arguments to make, he’d have made them, but the Ohio Supreme Court has ruled clearly and unanimously that tentative labor agreements are public.

Other school districts in Ohio have a long record of sharing the same kind of information.

As for making a buck: Scott has billed the school district more than $104,000 this year, with $35,000 going toward negotiating the conceptual labor agreement. That figure includes $1,000 in fees for denying The Dispatch’s public-records request, a stellar use for taxpayer dollars.

It’s not just Scott, though. Olentangy school superintendent Wade Lucas and board of ed president Dave King condoned this chicanery. What did they have to hide?

Perhaps it’s that labor costs for the districts are projected to balloon from $123.4 million to $166.5 million over the next five years. That’s in part because it’s one of the state’s fastest-growing districts, but also because the district’s teachers are among the best-paid in Ohio. The median teacher salary under the new three-year contract will be more than $67,000, with the most experienced and qualified teachers (those with 25 years of seniority and master’s degrees) bringing home nearly $97,000.

The latest agreement raised pay scales another notch. By 2016, the district is projected to spend $23 million a year more than it’s bringing in, even though voters just approved a new levy in 2011.

All three members of the responsible parties – Scott, Lucas and King – declined to return repeated calls from Ohio Watchdog for comment.

Lucas, who will be compensated to the tune of $249,796 this year, has a record of not exactly being careful with taxpayer money.

Case in point No. 1: When Lucas was hired in 2009, he reportedly charged the school board a cool $1,000 just to attend his own welcoming reception. The reason? He hadn’t yet taken office, so he was attending the reception on his own time and felt he should be compensated for it.

Case in point No. 2: During Lucas’s watch, $11,000 was misappropriated by athletic departments at schools in the district. It took the state auditor, not the school board, to have the matter investigated. One of the athletic directors quit, but the other was merely reprimanded by the board.

The school system does have at least one Don Quixote in shining armor, Adam White. Since joining the board in 2011, White has consistently acted in the interest of the public. Unfortunately, he is usually outvoted 4-1 on the five-member board.

Not satisfied with the state auditor’s probe in the athletic department scandal, White went to the Delaware County Sheriff’s Office and filed criminal complaints.

White voted against a three-year renewal of Lucas’s contract, saying he objected to several of Lucas’s perks, including having the board pay for a tax-sheltered annuity for Lucas.

And White also voted against the teacher contract as well because, he said, a two-year deal would be more prudent than a three-year agreement.

In the most bizarre twist of all, White claimed Lucas threatened him at a closed-door board session. And, White says, he has been followed home from meetings by a group of men in a minivan. So now White has hired a bodyguard and an off-duty sheriff’s deputy to accompany him to that most basic and American expression of representative government: school-board meetings.

But perhaps it’s not so bizarre when you stop and think about it. After all, on the Olentangy school-year calendar, time is just a concept. So is civic responsibility.

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Jon Cassidy is the Texas bureau chief for Watchdog.org. He also writes a weekly column on politics for The American Spectator. He was formerly a reporter and editor for The Orange County Register in California and a reporter at The Hill in Washington, D.C. His work has been published by Fox News, Reason, The Federalist, Human Events, and other publications. He is a 2014 Robert Novak Journalism Fellow and a graduate of the University of Southern California. He and his wife Michelle live just outside Houston with their two children.

  • bruno

    This is a School district out of control, through all the recent turmoil, they are in process of installing artificial turf on the three High school football fields that will cost 1.8 million dollars. The athletic boosters claim they can raise the funds only to ask the district to co sign a loan for this unnecessary expenditure at a June 2012 school board meeting. Rest assured the tax payer will end up paying for this.