Vouchers group says attempt to ‘bully’ local schools involved in lawsuit came from top state Republicans

Ohio Sen. Matt Huffman and Ohio Auditor Keith Faber named; both deny any wrongdoing.

A group suing the state over the legality of school vouchers recently released documents showing top Republicans, including Senate Republican majority leader Matt Huffman and State Auditor Keith Faber, sent emails asking local school districts how much they paid for the lawsuit against the state.

The group suing the state, Vouchers Hurt Ohio, says it was not appropriate to ask local school districts to provide that information. Instead, the Ohio Legislative Service Commission, a public body that works with state officials to provide public information, should have been asked to provide that information.

“LSC was the appropriate state agency for Huffman to turn to if he wanted information, but he didn’t want information,” A.J. Calderone, superintendent of LaBrae Local Schools in Trumbull County, which is part of the lawsuit. “This was not about fact finding. This was about harassment and intimidation and bullying.”

Vouchers Hurt Ohio is a coalition of school districts who joined together in the lawsuit, including Dayton Public Schools. It also goes by the Ohio Coalition of Equity and Adequacy of School Funding,.

Dennis Willard, spokesman for Vouchers Hurt Ohio, said as soon as the emails started going out in May, the organization started hearing from local schools.

“The two organizations you don’t want knocking on your door or asking you questions are the FBI and an auditor,” he said. “So the treasurers did feel pressure, threatened, etc., and they expressed this to us and asked us for guidance.”

Both Senate Republicans and the auditor of state objected to Vouchers Hurt Ohio’s characterization of what happened.

Marc Kovac, a spokesman for the Auditor’s Office, said the state auditor often helps the state legislature in performing constitutional oversight duties.

“As was previously reported in June, the Auditor had to use his subpoena authority before a number of public schools produced basic information on public spending that are unquestionably public records,” Kovac said.

He said it is “improper and shameful” that the state had to use its subpoena power over schools.

“Their refusal to readily share their spending decisions raises questions about how they are spending public dollars,” Kovac said.

Only a handful of districts reported giving any money to either the Ohio Coalition of Equity and Adequacy of School Funding, and many districts said they had paid annual membership fees, according to public records released by Vouchers Hurt Ohio. Very few districts reported contributing directly to the lawsuit and all who had said there had been some sort of authorization from a school board.

John Fortney, director of communications for the Ohio Senate Majority Caucus, specifically mentioned Bill Phillis, the executive director of the Ohio Coalition of Equity and Adequacy of School Funding, as well as an increase in school funding for both vouchers and public schools in the most recent budget.

“Following another record billion dollar investment in K-12 schools, Bill Phillis’ group thinks it has unlimited funds to target, sue and intimidate parents who simply want the best educational option for their children,” Fortney said. “Parents would never dream that their school district’s tax dollars are going to fund a special interest lawsuit targeting their families, but that is exactly how low this group will go.”

About the lawsuit

The lawsuit was filed in Franklin County Courts in January 2022. It claims that Ohio’s EdChoice voucher system is unconstitutional under Ohio’s constitution.

The central question is if Ohio’s legislature, which funds the voucher system, charter schools and traditional public schools, can legally fund private schools through vouchers.

The case is moving forward and is set for a trial date in November 2024. No matter the outcome, the case will likely take years to get to a final decision.

Jocelyn Rhynard, a Dayton Public Schools board member, spoke about the Vouchers Hurt Ohio lawsuit at a press conference outlining the issues the group had with the state’s request for information.

She said the Ohio Constitution clearly indicates the legislature shall create a single system of common public schools for Ohio students and the voucher program creates a separate and unequal system of schools.

“As the state continues to funnel billions of dollars into the hands of private school operators, local public schools are going to have to go back again and again to their voters to pass levies to make up the difference. We believe this is unconstitutional,” Rhynard said.

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