School levy campaigns walk fine line, seek legal guidance after criminal case



Bellbrook school leaders were found guilty; Auditor’s formal guidance will come later

Dozens of Ohio school districts, including several locally, are in the middle of tax levy campaigns for the May 2 election, but the leaders of those efforts are working without hoped-for legal guidance from the Ohio Auditor of State’s Office.

Schools’ worries about how their levy committees can, or can’t, publicly campaign could affect outcomes of school levies on the ballot currently, as election results can rely heavily on voter turnout.

The concerns arose when Bellbrook-Sugarcreek Schools Superintendent Doug Cozad and multiple school board members were criminally charged for using public funds to campaign for passage of a school levy. Cozad and three school board members were eventually convicted of dereliction of duty but not of the other charge, illegal transaction of public funds. They were ordered to pay restitution to the school district.

After that case, public school organizations asked the state to update the guidelines on what school districts are and are not allowed to do. In general, school districts have to walk a fine line between using public funds to share positive information about the schools, which is allowed, and using those funds to urge people to vote yes on a school levy, which is not.

But the Ohio Auditor of State’s office confirmed to the Dayton Daily News they do not intend to release requested guidance until after the election to the biggest two representatives of public schools, the Ohio School Boards Association and the Ohio Association of School Business Officials.

Auditor’s spokesman Marc Kovac said the advice from the Auditor’s office has been consistent to district administrators.

“We have consistently advised that district administrators may share factual information with the public regarding district finances, programs, and facilities,” Kovac said. “We have also advised administrators to be cautious when they decide, during time compensated by the district, to depart from providing merely factual information and instead advocate for a levy in an attempt to persuade voters.”

He said administrators are also advised to review all publicly funded levy materials to be certain they do not include statements that take a position on a levy.

“We are aware that the Auditor of State will be releasing additional guidance,” said Ohio School Boards Association Chief Legal Counsel Sara C. Clark. “In the interim, we are making districts aware of the Bellbrook-Sugarcreek litigation and encouraging them to work with their board counsel on questions about the impact the case has on any pending/current levy initiatives.”

That has left school districts to rely on their own attorneys as well as older guidance from OSBA and OASBO.

“Different attorneys are saying all kinds of different things on this,” said Vandalia-Butler Schools Superintendent Rob O’Leary. Vandalia has a 1% income tax levy on the ballot in May. “But again, we are able to talk about what the need is, what the contributing factors (are), just all those factual statements. And that’s where we have to stay.”

He said that can be difficult sometimes, because people may wonder why the district isn’t campaigning a certain way or why some fliers aren’t being sent out. But those are the limitations and guidelines, he said.

Jenny Wood, spokeswoman for Northmont Schools, said her district’s 7.82-mill levy campaign is being run primarily by a political action committee (PAC) composed of community and staff members, who work outside of school hours. She said they do not currently have guidance on “how to run a levy campaign” from the Auditor’s office.

Other districts said they stay within the clearly defined bounds of the law. Beavercreek Superintendent Paul Otten said the district, which has a 5.25-mill renewal levy on the ballot for this May, is following the advice of attorneys.

“We see our role as simply providing the facts regarding the levy and its purpose,” Otten said. “It is not the role of the district or its employees to persuade our community members to vote one way or the other.”

Cozad ultimately entered an “Alford plea” in September, which allows him to plead guilty while maintaining his innocence. He was ordered to pay $5,800 in restitution. Former school board member Elizabeth Betz was ordered to pay back about $1,300 after also entering an Alford Plea.

In December, visiting judge David Landefeld found Bellbrook school board President David Carpenter and former board member Virginia Slouffman guilty of dereliction of duty, a second-degree misdemeanor, and not guilty of illegal transaction of public funds, in relation to the past school levy campaign. They were ordered to repay about $502 each in restitution.

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