Ohio offices reviewing claims that Kings Schools committed levy campaign violations

A second consecutive election in Warren County’s Kings Schools is featuring a proposed $89.9 million tax hike for a new school and expanded learning spaces. A local tax opposition group - their yard sign stands roadside in Deerfield Township near a pro-bond issue sign - is accusing Kings officials of campaign violations through the alleged improper use of school resources to promote the tax bond issue. (Photo By Michael D. Clark/Journal-News)
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A second consecutive election in Warren County’s Kings Schools is featuring a proposed $89.9 million tax hike for a new school and expanded learning spaces. A local tax opposition group - their yard sign stands roadside in Deerfield Township near a pro-bond issue sign - is accusing Kings officials of campaign violations through the alleged improper use of school resources to promote the tax bond issue. (Photo By Michael D. Clark/Journal-News)

An anti-tax group is accusing Kings Schools of using “strong-arm tactics” on school staffers and committing campaign violations to support a bond issue on the March ballot, allegations that are being reviewed by three state departments.

Some opponents of the proposed bond issue for a new school, which voters will decide on the March 17 ballot, claim Kings officials are improperly using school resources, intimidating teachers and using work time to promote the bond issue.

ExploreMORE: Kings Schools go back to ballot in proposing $89.9 million school construction bond issue 

But Kings officials say they are following Ohio election laws in their pursuit of persuading residents to approve a 4.7-mill, $89.9 million tax hike to build a new junior high school and renovate classroom spaces.

School officials said they have “been transparent in our campaign and we have been following campaign laws,” according to a statement provided in response to questions from the Journal-News.

The Warren County school system of 4,636 students is regularly rated among the top academic performers in Ohio, and its high school has been lauded as among the top 100 in the U.S.

An attempt at nearly the same tax bond issue in November failed by only 146 votes out of 7,296 cast.

ExploreMORE: Voters reject Kings Schools’ tax hike to build new junior high school

School officials said the tax money and construction is needed to handle enrollment growth. Opponents say the need for a new school is excessive and the district can make do with the current learning spaces.

According to a Feb. 14 letter sent to the Ohio Secretary of State, Ohio Auditor and Ohio Attorney General, officials with the group Citizens For A Better Warren County asked those state departments to “investigate the apparent use of public school resources in support of advancing a forthcoming school levy.”

Officials from the three state offices told the Journal-News this week they are reviewing the accusations.

Under Ohio election law, publicly funded school districts and their employees are not allowed to use school resources during their work time to campaign for local school tax issues. They are also forbidden from soliciting campaign contributions or election work from district employees.

Instead, private citizen campaign groups are created to handle the election-time promotion of school tax issues on local ballots, and coordination between the private group and public school is restricted by law.

The local tax opposition group also included in their communication to the state offices a copy of a Jan. 17 email from Kings Superintendent Tim Ackermann, in which he summarizes a district staff meeting held that morning.

“I addressed the staff this morning at a district meeting regarding the bond issue,” Ackermann writes.

“Their help will be needed to get parents out to vote and to make sure they have the right information. I let them know what will happen if the (tax) bond fails – evaluate all day kindergarten, class sizes can go up and modular (portable classrooms) units may be needed taking money away from the general fund.”

But the group claims in its letter to state officials that Ackermann’s meeting with teachers “was used to encourage or ask staff for financial support, canvassing, literature drop, letters to parents, etc., all in support of the levy.”

They also allege Ackermann told teachers he and other district officials “looked into the voting records of staff members and derided those who did not vote” for the prior tax issue.

“Such a presentation and its intimidating nature is certainly not appropriate for a state-required teacher in-service program.”

The group has also accused Kings officials of sending out deceptive campaign mailers, coordinating pro-tax presentations to the public with the private campaign group, pressuring teachers to display pro-tax ribbons on their classroom doors, and using incorrect statistics regarding student enrollment and building capacities. It claims school employees are using work email to promote the issue.

They ask for “an immediate investigation in these strong-arm tactics.”

Use of taxpayers dollars to frustrate and undermine our democratic process cannot be condoned,” said the letter sent by Dorette Landis, treasurer of Citizens For A Better Warren County.

Other names on the letter to state officials include former Kings Board of Education member Kim Grant.

Grant has in the past been associated with the Southwest Ohio anti-tax group Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes (COAST). The group has opposed past Kings tax issues. She did not respond to a request to comment.

COAST Chairman Bradford Beckett also sent a letter to Kings school board members echoing the contention that district officials are using school resources and work time to improperly promote the issue.

Ohio Auditor Keith Farber released a statement and video link on Wednesday — while making no reference to Kings Schools — that he said was to “remind” public school districts and other taxpayer-funded entities they “may not use tax dollars to support or oppose levy or bond issues on the ballot.”

“You cannot campaign or influence the outcome of a levy or bond issue using tax dollars,” Faber said. “This time of year, my office receives lots of questions regarding the use of tax dollars and resources on these issues.”

In a response to the Journal-News, Dawn Gould, spokeswoman for Kings Schools, issued a statement.

“Our employees were made aware that they are not permitted to campaign during school hours or use school resources to campaign,” she said. “If at any time we are made aware of an allegation of a campaign violation, it will be immediately investigated and, if valid, will be addressed.”


WHAT TO KNOW

What: Warren County anti-school tax group accuses Kings Schools of illegal tax bond issue campaign activities and complains to three state departments.

The bond issue: Kings is asking voters to approve a 4.7-mill $89.9 million tax hike for a new school and renovations of learning spaces.

What Kings officials say: They refute the accusations and say "our employees were made aware that they are not permitted to campaign during school hours or use school resources to campaign."

How state officials are involved: Officials from the Ohio Auditor, Attorney General and Secretary of State offices said this week they are reviewing the anti-school tax group's complaints against Kings Schools.

What comes next? On March 17, voters in the Kings school system will decide on the proposed tax hike.