State school board responds to questions of ethics, conflicts

By Doug Livingston

Beacon Journal education writer

Sometimes the private business of state school board members overlaps into their roles deciding policy for Ohio.

At least four board members have business and private interests that compete directly for education dollars. Two are lobbyists cruising the government hallways urging lawmakers and staffers to make decisions beneficial to their clients who have a stake in public education money and regulation of schools.

Another is married to a lobbyist for private schools who has attempted to sway the state board as recently as this month, and a fourth generates income from public education programs also administered by the board.

They suggest there is no problem with this activity, they police themselves, abstain as necessary and file the necessary statements with the Ohio Ethics Commission.

And while the ethics commission says the law may seem clear — state law “prohibits a member of a state board or commission from receiving compensation for services he or she performs personally on a matter that is before the board or commission on which he or she serves...” — the practice often falls into a gray area.

Bryan Williams, an elected school board member from the Akron area, is a lobbyist for nonunion building contractors, the Associated Builders and Contractors of Ohio.

In that role, he attempts to persuade state legislators and directors of agencies to create policy and spend money that benefits his group.

At the same time, he chairs the school board’s legislative and budget committee, which monitors and testifies before the Legislature on behalf of the board.

Among the topics he lobbied this year: House Bill 168, which would create a new post-secondary education option. The program originally was designed to allow high school students in districts with limited course offerings to take advanced, college-level classes. The program has transitioned into an opportunity for students to get a jump on college with their local school district picking up the tab.

The bill, for which Williams voiced support before the Legislature, would also create an apprenticeship program, not for colleges, but for trades. Contractors could hire students into apprenticeships and charge the schools for the employment costs of the child.

A co-sponsor of House Bill 168 is state Rep. Louis Terhar, husband of school board president Debe Terhar. A provision of the bill would require the state school board to create the rules for the apprenticeships.

Williams also says he lobbied the administration regarding state money for school construction and regulation of school construction, although there were no details in his disclosure form as to what he sought.

He also has lobbied bills that would prevent unions and employers from negotiating contracts requiring a union shop.

And, while serving on the state school board and as the lobbyist for construction companies, he campaigned multiple times against the Coventry school district’s proposed levy to finance school construction. He charged that the project wasted public money and eliminated competition. His campaign flier asked: “Can taxpayers trust Coventry Schools with a $30 million levy?”

Coventry Superintendent Russell Chaboudy responded that Williams’s efforts to defeat the tax issue conflicted with his role as a policy maker for public education.

“We do know what his interests are. He’s a lobbyist for construction groups,” Chaboudy said days before the bond issue failed in February. “We’re very confused about his take.”

Williams said recently that he and his organization never opposed the levy, but rather opposed the bidding process and spending plan.

“That’s what we opposed, and that’s what we communicated to the taxpaying public,” Williams said. “And that is absolutely standing up for public education.”

As for conflicts, he said, “There’s no way around it; People are going to gravitate to the position that they have interest in.”

He suggested that others are influenced by past affiliations: Darryl Mehaffie was a community college trustee; Deborah Cain is a retired teacher and union member; Ronald Rudduck is a retired superintendent now teaching at a college.

Christian classes

C. Todd Jones — appointed to the board by Gov. John Kasich — is president, general counsel and registered lobbyist for the Association of Independent Colleges & Universities of Ohio (AICUO), which competes for K-12 and higher education dollars.

He represents about 50 private colleges, among them Ohio Christian University, whose president is Mark A. Smith, another school board member appointed by Kasich.

This year, Jones’ association scored a victory. The Legislature approved a change in law that requires the Department of Education to prepare a marketing list of all colleges participating in post-secondary education, distribute that list to all schools and require the schools to present those lists to eligible students and their families.

The application of that law must be reviewed by the state board.

Last year, the program collected about $22 million from public schools to pay tuition to public and private colleges.

Smith’s Ohio Christian University, a conservative evangelical school, is among the post-secondary participants, enrolling about 136 students in 2012, according to records.

Although state law explicitly limits post-secondary options to “nonsectarian courses for high school and college credit,” OCU’s curriculum doesn’t hide its Christian overtones.

A course outline for general psychology, one of its 34 funded courses, focuses on “the influence of the Christian world view and integration of the Christian faith within the field of psychology. Specifically, this course will reflect a holistic Christ-centered biblically integrated education in the Wesleyan tradition.”

“All of our courses are going to have biblical principles,” acknowledged Elayne Cabrera, a coordinator for Trailblazer Academy, OCU’s growing program for high school students.

Smith did not return several phone calls requesting comment on the post-secondary issue.

Wearing two hats

On the state board, Jones is Bryan Williams’ vice chairman of the legislative and budget committee, which means both representing at least two different interests.

Jones discloses to the Office of the Legislative Inspector General what topics and bills he lobbies. He also has filed a statement with the Ohio Ethics Commission and other state entities disqualifying himself from school-board votes that have the potential for conflict.

He did so in 2011 while lobbying the Legislature on a college-grant program.

However, he did not file regarding post-secondary education. Jones said in a recent interview that he met any potential conflict early on by suggesting that AICUO have someone else do that lobbying.

“I would prefer that we establish, that we exclude me from all policy advocacy and policy decision-making related to post-secondary education option programs and dual enrollment programs for the association so that I might be able to maintain my independence as a state board member to advocate what I believe in that area,” Jones said he told his members last year.

AICUO authorized a hire, but documents raise questions.

Jones disclosed for the January-April filing period that he lobbied the Legislature on House Bill 168, the post-secondary program. For the next period, May to August, he did not include post-secondary among his tasks.

But in May, as the state budget bill worked its way through the Legislature, Jones gave testimony on behalf of the AICUO commending the Senate for restoring funding and programming for the College Credit Plus program, “a reformed version of the Post-Secondary Education Option.”

He told the Senate Finance Committee in a written statement that he appreciated that the legislation requires the state school superintendent and others to work with his organization on this program.

That’s the superintendent who answers to a board executive committee, on which sit Jones, Smith and Terhar, whose husband co-sponsored the post-secondary bill.

Asked if his testimony was lobbying, he said: “No, no, no. There has to be live legislation and I would have to be taking a position on it. That is lobbying.”

“Lobbying involves advocating for a particular change in law to a piece of pending legislation that exists,” Jones said.

Jones explained that he merely stated AICUO’s support for post-secondary and the association’s intent to work with lawmakers moving forward. He never said he would be the one doing that work.

“I didn’t endorse the position of the association. I believe the testimony at the time was to state the position of the association while I was testifying. It’s an important distinction,” Jones said.

Lobbying records show that another person registered to lobby the bill for the AICUO beginning in May, but he left the association’s employment a few months later.

But even while Jones may have, on paper at least, turned over legislative lobbying to someone else during the summer, Jones filed another statement saying that he lobbied the governor’s office in the May- August period on post-secondary education.

There is a simple rule for members of the state legislature: They cannot lobby while in office, said Paul Nick, executive director of the Ohio Ethic Commission.

But when it comes to the state school board, “Lobby law is silent,” Nick added.

Conflict of marriage?

Board member Stephanie Dodd of Lima said she is aware of a potential conflict through her marriage to Dan Dodd, who lobbied before the state board of education earlier this year on behalf of the Ohio Association of Independent Schools, a group of high-end private schools.

That organization asked that private high schools be exempt from the new end-of-course exams, which will replace the Ohio Graduation Test. Dodd’s husband filed disclosure documents indicating that he would be lobbying the state board of education on other matters related to graduation requirements and standardized testing, each policy set by the board.

“In all honesty, if he has an issue that comes before the board,” Stephanie Dodd said, “...I’ve had to abstain.”

Twice she has done so. Once in June when her husband’s association lobbied for legislation to exempt private schools and again on Nov. 12, when the state board passed a resolution that requires private schools to take an alternate exam.

Contributing to this story were reporters from the NewsOutlet, a consortium of journalism programs at the University of Akron and Youngstown State University. Participating organizations are the Akron Beacon Journal, The Vindicator of Youngstown, Rubber City Radio and WYSU-FM radio.