Criminal charges against Bellbrook school officials unique, state group says

Bellbrook schools Superintendent Doug Cozad (left) and David Carpenter answer residents’ school levy questions at a community meeting Monday, Feb. 3, 2020 at Bellbrook Middle School. JEREMY P. KELLEY / STAFF

Combined ShapeCaption
Bellbrook schools Superintendent Doug Cozad (left) and David Carpenter answer residents’ school levy questions at a community meeting Monday, Feb. 3, 2020 at Bellbrook Middle School. JEREMY P. KELLEY / STAFF

Charges filed against Bellbrook-Sugarcreek Local Schools officials are the first Ohio criminal filings for alleged school levy campaign misconduct in recent years, state organizations say.

A school board meeting to discuss the “public charges of alleged misconduct” is at 6 p.m. Saturday at 3757 Upper Bellbrook Road. But the board will go into closed executive session to discuss the charges with legal counsel. A notice from the board said that any official voting action, while “not yet anticipated” would happen after the executive session.

ExploreRELATED: Bellbrook Schools superintendent, current and past board members face criminal charges

Ohio School Boards Association officials say all school districts walk a fine line every time they have a levy on the ballot. Ohio law prohibits “political subdivisions” such as school districts and cities, from use of taxpayer money in any way that “supports or opposes … the passage of a levy or bond issue.”

However, that same section of the Ohio Revised Code says that schools are allowed to use public funds to “communicate information about their plans, policies and operations” to the public.

Sara Clark, OSBA’s chief legal counsel, said her organization generally encourages school boards to take a conservative approach because the Ohio Revised Code language can be difficult to apply.

“In a lot of cases, that line between ‘communicating information’ and ‘supporting the levy’ is a really fine line,” Clark said. “For example, if a levy will provide funds for a particular program, or if the defeat of a levy will result in the inability to fund a particular program, public officials may communicate those facts to the community. Although they certainly have the potential to influence the outcome of the levy, the Ohio Attorney General’s Office found that they weren’t statements designed to support the passage of the levy as prohibited as law.”

Similar cases can result in forced repayments via state audit findings or a misconduct referral to the Ohio Department of Education, Clark said. However, the statewide organization has not seen criminal charges for such a case in recent years.

Explore2019 story: Schools, opponents both make errors in levy campaign

The Ohio Auditor of State’s Office pointed to a 2016 case where Buckeye Valley School District in Central Ohio paid $9,750 to a firm for “political activities to help promote” an unsuccessful 2014 bond issue campaign. That money was repaid to the school district, but there were no criminal charges.

In the Bellbrook criminal case, an affidavit from Auditor of State fraud investigator John Uhl says school district officials violated Ohio law, pointing to language the district used in levy mailers in the spring of 2019. Uhl said the district used $5,214 in public money to send messages saying “Continue the excellence with the passage of Issue 4.”

Five past and present Bellbrook-Sugarcreek Local Schools officials, including its current superintendent and board president, have been charged in Xenia Municipal Court in connection with alleged misuse of public funds.

Superintendent Doug Cozad, 47, faces eight misdemeanor charges, including four counts of illegal transaction of public funds and four counts of dereliction of duty, according to Xenia Municipal Court records.

Board President David Carpenter, board member Virginia Slouffman and past board members Liz Betz and Kathy Kingston were charged with one count each of illegal transaction of public funds and dereliction of duty.

ExploreMay story: Bellbrook school levy passes after three rejections

Ohio Auditor’s Office spokeswoman Allie Dumski said her office periodically sends out reminders to schools and cities on the do’s and don’ts of levy campaigning.

A document they sent out in April 2019, just as Bellbrook’s mailers were going out, has more than a dozen bullet points, including not using public money to support or oppose passage of a levy, not allowing a levy committee to use school facilities for a private/closed meeting, and not allowing a levy committee to use their nonprofit bulk mail rate permit.

Bellbrook voters rejected the spring 2019 levy and two others, before eventually passing a seven-year, 4.9-mill property tax levy in May of 2021 that will raise $3.22 million a year and reverse some budget cuts made the previous year.

Clark said the criminal case regarding 2019 activities “should not have an effect on the passage of the May 2021 levy.”

Explore2020 story: Audit examines Bellbrook school spending

Sugarcreek Twp. resident John Stafford, who vocally opposed the levies, said the criminal charges have been a long time coming.

“They’ve been doing it for so long they didn’t think they were ever going to be held accountable,” Stafford said. “I hope the new school board members who were not part of this disaster — but it’s their mess to clean up — I’m hoping they will terminate Cozad, and that Carpenter will step down.”

A separate case against the Bellbrook school board regarding the failed 2019 school levy is pending before the Ohio Election Commission.

Bellbrook has been in legal trouble related to the school levy before. In 2020, Greene County Judge Stephen Wolaver ruled that Bellbrook-Sugarcreek school board violated Ohio’s Open Meetings Act on multiple occasions in 2018 and 2019.

ExploreCourt rules Bellbrook schools violated Open Meetings Act

Wolaver ruled that board members’ text and email discussions from April 19-22, 2019, regarding a May 2019 pro-school levy postcard, “contain sufficient discussion and deliberation to constitute a meeting under the (Open Meetings Act).”