The superintendent of Bellbrook-Sugarcreek Schools and one former school board member took plea deals Friday, days before they were set to go to trial on criminal charges related to a school levy campaign.
Bellbrook Superintendent Doug Cozad and former board member Liz Betz both took an “Alford plea” deal Friday morning, according to Xenia Municipal Court records. Cozad pleaded guilty to one count of dereliction of duty, and was ordered to pay just over $5,800 in restitution to the district.
According the Department of Justice, an Alford plea is “when the defendant maintains his or her innocence with respect to the charge to which he or she offers to plead guilty.”
Cozad had faced eight misdemeanor charges, including four counts of illegal transaction of public funds and four counts of dereliction of duty, related to mailers sent out during a May 2019 school levy campaign. Cozad and other current and former board members have been accused of allegedly authorizing district funds to pay for newsletters promoting the levy.
Betz was charged with one count each of illegal transaction of public funds and dereliction of duty. Betz pleaded guilty to the single count of dereliction of duty and was ordered to pay just over $1,300 in restitution.
In a statement posted to the Bellbrook-Sugarcreek Schools website, Cozad wrote, “This plea allows me to maintain my innocence and, at the same time, put this situation behind me in order to move forward both personally and professionally.”
Current school board President David Carpenter and former board member Virginia Slouffman also have been charged with one count of illegal transaction of public funds and one count of dereliction of duty. Both still have trials scheduled for Monday, according to Xenia Municipal Court records.
In his statement, Cozad wrote that this area of law around advocating for school levies is “still unclear.”
Newsletters paid for by school districts have long walked a thin line between sharing positive school information with voters, which is allowed, and openly campaigning for passage of a tax levy, which is not.
The four newer members of the Bellbrook school board, who did not face charges (Audra Dorn, Heidi Anderson, Mike Kinsey and Kevin Price) issued a statement Friday afternoon.
“We thank Dr. Doug Cozad for his professionalism during this difficult time. We know it has been a strain on all parties involved,” the Board of Education statement said. “The Board of Education has not yet decided what, if any, actions are required of it at this time. However, the board is seeking further information and guidance on this matter.”
Cozad’s lawyer did not immediately respond to a request for comment.