What started out as a Columbus mayoral race between a popular incumbent and a long-shot challenger has mushroomed to include the Columbus school district and its teachers’ union, a conservative think tank and the IRS.
On Sept. 17, Bill Todd, Republican challenger of Mayor Michael Coleman, who is seeking his third term, filed a lawsuit against the Columbus City Schools, on behalf of five residents, alleging inequity of per pupil funding in poor neighborhoods.
Calling into question Coleman’s support for the school district has been the main thrust of Todd’s campaign, and he has called for a takeover of the district by city hall.
In response to the lawsuit, the Columbus Education Association on Oct. 1 asked the Internal Revenue Service to look into possible coordination between Todd’s campaign and the Buckeye Institute for Public Policy Solutions, formed by Ken Blackwell, the former Secretary of State who lost his gubernatorial bid to Ted Strickland last year.
Rhonda Johnson, president of the CEA, characterized Todd’s lawsuit against the school district as "frivolous" and "reckless" and said it will take "money, time and energy" to defend itself that would be better used educating children.
"It borders on a campaign stunt," Johnson said, questioning whether the suit would have been filed if Todd were not in the mayor’s race.
The complaint "is about the future of our schools and the sanctity of elections," Johnson said.
In turn, the Buckeye Institute is calling the CEA complaint "ill-informed and questionable" and said it "will not be intimidated by union bullies who seek to silence opposing points of view."
The union sees the Buckeye Institute behind the suit, and has asked the IRS to investigate because such non-profit organizations are barred from participating in the political process.
Johnson pointed to the timing of the suit, which she said came three days before the release of a Buckeye Institute report that came to the same conclusions about unequal funding.
The report blames the unequal funding on teachers’ contracts that allow educators to choose the schools where they work. It does not cite Columbus schools in its research.
Johnson said Columbus teachers are interviewed before being assigned to a school, and placement is not based on seniority.
Buckeye Institute President David Hansen describes the organization as one that promotes "free market solutions, not candidates. We support ideas, not political candidates. We have nothing to hide."
Columbus school board member W. Carlton Weddington, who attended the news conference to announce the CEA complaint, attributed Todd’s and the Buckeye Institute’s motivation to their support of for-profit charter schools.
"He needs to come clean and talk about his relationship with for-profit schools," Weddington said. "Let’s not talk about taking over something that, if he woke up tomorrow and he was mayor, he couldn’t do."
He said that Todd’s statements about the failure of Columbus schools have been inaccurate and noted that the district met all 42 standards for annual yearly progress on the state report card.
Johnson added that no research has shown that student achievement is improved when a city takes control of a district, as happened in Cleveland, Los Angeles and New York City.
These are not districts where you can say "they have done a whole lot better," Johnson said.
Coleman has been supportive of Columbus schools, she commented. He has received the endorsement of the CEA.
Johnson did not know whether the IRS would come to any conclusion before Nov. 6, Election day.