Michael D. Clark reports:
Some Ohio school districts are breaking the law by deducting money from employees’ paychecks to spend on levy campaigns, critics and state education officials say.
Of Southwest Ohio’s 49 public school systems, nine use payroll deductions to raise campaign money: Kings, Mason, Fairfield, Middletown, Loveland, Madeira, Mariemont, Reading and West Clermont schools, The Enquirer learned through public records requests.
The districts collect the employees’ voluntary contributions and forward the money to private campaign organizations.
It’s an illegal use of resources and personnel of publicly funded schools, asserts Christopher Finney, attorney and founding member of the Hamilton County-based Citizens Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes (COAST).
Finney cites Ohio Revised Code 3315.07, which states in part “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 issue.”
Finney says the practice is surprisingly blatant.
“It’s outrageous because typically the abuse of tax dollars to advance the cause of bigger government is usually more subtle,” he said.
Finney, whose group has been a longtime critic and active litigator against various area school districts, is backed by some state school officials.
Damon Asbury, director of legislative services for the Ohio School Board Association, said OSBA discourages the practice.
“School districts are prohibited by law from devoting any resources, including personnel time, equipment or in-kind services, to any political campaigns, including levies and bond issues,” he said.
School district officials defend the programs.
They subtract the costs incurred by district workers in setting up and processing staff levy donations. The reduced amount from the total donated money is then sent to the district’s private pro-levy group.
“Because no school district funds are expended to process these payroll deductions, we are confident this practice is legal,” said Debbie Alberico, spokeswoman for West Clermont.
Moreover, argued West Clermont attorney David Lampe, another provision of the Ohio Revised Code “specifically authorizes any employer, including a public school district, to deduct from the wages and salaries of its employees amounts to be transmitted toward a political action committee. This statute allows an employer to deduct from the money to be transmitted an amount necessary to defray the actual cost of making these deductions and transmittals.”
Besides, “we are constantly looking for other ways to establish funding for the (levy) campaigns,” Reading Schools Superintendent Scott Inskeep said.
“It is very expensive to run these campaigns, and the money is coming from an employee check at their discretion,” said Inskeep.
But Clermont County Prosecutor Vince Faris said the payroll deductions at West Clermont School warrant a review by his office within the next 30 days.
Warren County Prosecutor David Fornshell has declined to investigate the two districts – Mason and Kings – within his jurisdiction, in part because he said state law has no penalty provisions for school systems found to be in violation.
“It’s one of those several areas where the Legislature has basically said ‘thou shalt not’ without providing the exact remedy. Under those circumstances, it seems that the Legislature is essentially saying that the action is not criminal, but might be subject to a civil action in prohibition of the prohibited activity,” Fornshell said.
Julie Wilson, spokeswoman for Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deter’s office, said the practice by some schools “is a matter that we will need to look into.”
Butler County Prosecutor Michael Gmoser did not respond to requests for comment.
Finney says he is aware of Ohio’s “conflicting statutory provisions” but maintains the payroll deductions give pro-levy campaign forces an unfair financial advantage against local school levy opposition.
He is considering suing some or all of the districts.
“In each (school levy) election we see situations in which – rather than compete fairly under the rules of the game – participants attempt to rig the system to a reliable outcome,” said Finney. “It is just wrong, and they know it is wrong.”
Payroll deductions for levy campaigns
A review of public records obtained by The Enquirerof 49 school districts in Hamilton, Butler, Warren and Clermont counties showed that nine school systems use employee payroll deductions to raise levy campaign money.
The districts are: Kings, Mason, Fairfield, Middletown, Loveland, Madeira, Mariemont, Reading and West Clermont.
Among these are three districts – Middletown, West Clermont and Fairfield – that are on the ballot next month with proposed school tax levies.
Middletown: A combined tax hike that includes a $55 million bond issue of 3.95 mills and a 0.26-mill permanent improvement levy. If approved, it would pay for a new middle school and renovate the high school at a cost of $147 per year for a $100,000 home.
West Clermont: A five-year, 5.8-mill emergency levy that would cost the owner of a $100,000 home $203 more per year in school taxes.
Fairfield: A $61 million, 2.62-mill bond issue would help pay for construction of two new elementary schools and a freshman school. The bond would cost the owner of a $100,000 home $91.70 more in school taxes annually.
Officials at the other six districts say their voluntary payroll deduction programs are raising money for school levy campaigns in 2014 and beyond.
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