Ohio auditor details Bellbrook-Sugarcreek schools’ use of public funds to support levy campaign

Ohio Auditor’s says how school districts can prevent this from happening in the future.

The Ohio Auditor of State published its special audit into the Bellbrook-Sugarcreek School District Thursday, illustrating findings for recovery against current and former school officials, and providing guidance for how schools and other municipalities can avoid running afoul of this oft-misunderstood issue.

The final report on the investigation into the Bellbrook-Sugarcreek Local School District found findings for recovery totaling more than $8,000, according to Ohio Auditor Keith Faber’s office.

The amount is consistent with court-ordered restitution as part of criminal cases against Bellbrook school officials related to a 2019 levy campaign. A newsletter published by the school referenced the passage of a tax levy with the headline “An Investment in our schools is an investment in our community” followed by “Bellbrook-Sugarcreek Schools is worth the investment,” according to the report. Additionally, one of two postcards sent to voters contained the phrase “Continue the Excellence with the passage of Issue 4!” The cost of both postcards was just over $5,200, the report says.

Ohio law has long held that taxpayer money cannot be used by a government or school to advocate for the passage of a tax levy. However, providing factual information to voters about taxes, budgets and city or school news is allowed. Newsletters paid for by public entities, particularly school boards, have long walked a fine line between sharing positive school information, which is allowed, and openly campaigning to vote yes, which is not.

Superintendent Doug Cozad and former school board member Elizabeth Betz each took an “Alford plea” in September 2022 to misdemeanor counts of dereliction of duty. Cozad was ordered to pay restitution of $5,803.59 to the district, and Betz was ordered to pay restitution of $1,303.59, which they both paid that same day, according to the auditor’s office.

Board member David Carpenter and former member Virginia Slouffman were each found guilty of one count of dereliction of duty in Xenia Municipal Court in December 2022, and the ruling was upheld by the Second District Court of Appeals earlier this year. They were ordered to make restitution of $502 each, which they submitted in November, according to the auditor’s office.

To help prevent future incidents, the Auditor’s of State’s Office has developed guidance, available online, so that school districts and other political subdivisions can avoid running afoul of the issue.

“District personnel, including the superintendent, treasurer, and members of the board of education, as private citizens, have the right to participate in the political process,” the document reads. “But district personnel and members of the board who choose to engage in activities that support or oppose a levy accept the responsibility of ensuring it was during time they were not being compensated by the district and without using district funds.”

“As the saying goes: on your time and on your dime,” it reads.

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