By Rick Palsgrove
The Ohio Auditor of State’s Office sent a letter to Groveport Madison Schools stating it received a complaint alleging the district may have violated Ohio law concerning some election campaign practices being used in connection with the district’s May 7 levy/bond issue.
However, Groveport Madison Schools officials state the district has done nothing wrong and is following the law.
In the letter to Groveport Madison Schools Superintendent Garilee Ogden, Mary DeGenaro, chief legal counsel for State Auditor Keith Faber, stated the auditor’s office was advised that Groveport Madison Schools “may have inappropriately engaged in campaign practices in violation of Ohio law” in support of Issue 5.
The allegations were presented to the State Auditor’s Office by a member of a group calling itself Citizens for Better Groveport Madison Schools, which is opposing the levy/bond issue.
DeGenaro wrote that the auditor’s office has “not confirmed the accuracy of the allegations,” but noted, if they are true, “the activity needs to cease and desist immediately” and the district needs to take immediate steps to “examine these and any ongoing practices and ensure all activities of the district’s board members and personnel are in full compliance with Ohio law.”
DeGenaro noted that information provided to the auditor alleges “proponents of the levy have been using district facilities to organize volunteers to distribute materials in a coordinated neighborhood canvassing effort.” Also, “district facilities, resources, and personnel were utilized to create a video in which statements (by the school superintendent) are not limited to the provision of information on the finances, building conditions, or activities of the district.”
DeGenaro’s letter notes that in the district’s video about Sedalia Elementary, the superintendent states, “We ask for your support for the bond issue on May, 7, 2019.” DeGenaro wrote that this “appears to be a statement which supports the levy and which is intended to influence the outcome of the upcoming election. We understand that the video has been disseminated by the district to voters through electronic outlets maintained and paid for with district funds.”
DeGenaro cited state law that reads “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 election.”
The State Auditor’s Office will review the allegations in the district’s next regular audit.
Groveport Madison response
In a statement released May 1, Groveport Madison acknowledged receiving the letter from the State Auditor’s Office.
“The notification further states that the Auditor’s Office has not confirmed the accuracy of the allegation – nor has the allegation even been investigated,” according to Groveport Madison officials. “The allegation states that the district used school facilities for campaign purposes. The district asserts this is not a violation, as the campaign followed the District’s Facilities Use Guidelines established under Board of Education Policy. The campaign applied for and paid for the use of the facilities and no district nor public funds were used as part of the campaign’s activities.”
Regarding the allegation that the district encouraged support of the levy and bond issue in an informational video that was posted on the district’s website, district officials stated, “While this allegation has not been substantiated by the Auditor of State’s Office, out of an abundance of caution, the district has removed the video in question from our website.”
According to the district’s official statement, “Groveport Madison Schools takes very seriously our responsibility to comply with Ohio’s laws governing campaign practices. We will continue to be vigilant in this regard and we welcome any inquiries by the Auditor of State’s Office.”
Opposition to the levy/bond issue
Citizens for Better Groveport Madison Schools member Wayne Bryan said the group obtained the information that was sent to the State Auditor’s Office by “doing research online and spending hours searching on Google.”
“They have rigged our election against the taxpayers, using their huge budget to do so,” said Bryan. “We cannot fight such a machine and the law was written so we would not have to.”
According to Citizens for Better Groveport Madison Schools, Issue 5 costs too much and is not needed as they believe there are other funding remedies for repairing the schools. They feel the permanent operating levy portion of the ballot issue means taxpayers will not be able to hold the district fiscally accountable and that the bond issue will create a 37 year debt that a future generation must absorb. The group also opposes tearing down the existing schools to build fewer, much larger schools, noting they believe larger schools tend to perform more poorly than small neighborhood schools. The group also questioned the district’s spending of $8 million in locally funded initiatives (for things such as an auditorium) during the building of the new high school for items not within the scope of the Ohio Facilities Construction Commission funding.
Support of the levy/bond issue
According to information provided by Groveport Madison Schools officials, if the levy is not approved the district would see deficits of $2.8 million in 2020 and $5.6 million in 2021.
“Without passage, we will not be able to support the level of programs we have today,” said Ogden. “Every decision we make is in the mindset of building trust and respect with our parents, community, area officials, and businesses of the greater Groveport Madison area.”
“We need money to continue to operate,” said Groveport Madison Treasurer John Walsh.
District officials state the bond issue is needed to: replace aging school buildings; ease student overcrowding; eliminate the 22 modular classrooms in the district; enable there to be identical academic and other programs in each school; result in less acreage to be maintained; create more overall efficiency; younger students would be separated from older students in the elementaries and buses; and provide for modern safety features (officials noted the current schools cannot be retrofitted to meet modern safety needs).
Ogden said that, in 2012, the Ohio Facilities Construction Commission recommended the district replace all of its schools because the cost to renovate them would exceed the cost of building new.
“To bring the schools up to current standards, the cost to renovate the schools would be $78 million,” said Ogden. “We could renovate them, but we’d still be in old era buildings.”
About the levy/bond issue
Voters in the Groveport Madison school district will decide on the combined operating levy and bond issue on May 7.
The proposed 6.10 mill permanent continuing operating levy, if approved by the voters, would replace the current five year 6.68 mill levy that will expire on Dec. 31, 2019.
The proposed levy is combined into one ballot issue with a proposed 37-year, 4.72 mill, $83.6 million bond issue that would generate funds to build three new pre-K through sixth grade elementary schools and one new middle school for grades seven and eight. The pre-K through sixth grade buildings would hold about 1,067 students each and the middle school would hold about 1,000 students.
The bond issue would also provide funds to demolish the existing elementary schools and middle schools. If the plan is approved by voters, it would reduce the number of schools in the district from 10 to five. The locations of where the new schools would be built has not been determined.
If voters approve the bond issue to build the schools, the Ohio Facilities Construction Commission would fund 53 percent of the estimated $148.7 million project and Groveport Madison would fund 47 percent.
The operating levy portion of the combined ballot issue will not raise taxes but, according to Walsh, the bond issue, if the combined ballot issue is approved, would result in an estimated increase in annual property taxes for the owners of the following valued homes: $100,000 market value: $164.96; $125,000 market value: $206.20; $150,000 market value: $247.44; $175,000 market value: $288.68; and $200,000 market value: $329.92.