“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.
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.
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.”
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.
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).”