Franklin schools under investigation

The Warren County prosecutor said Thursday his office has opened an investigation into allegations the Franklin City Schools District used school resources to engage in impermissible political activities.

Prosecutor David Fornshell announced the investigation two days after Franklin Superintendent Arnol Elam sent a letter home to parents of the district’s 2,924 students urging them to join him “in an active campaign to ensure Gov. (John) Kasich and any legislator who supports him are not re-elected.” The letter also was posted on the school’s website, but an edited version appeared late Thursday afternoon with that statement deleted.

Elam wrote the letter in response Kasich’s recently released school funding formula, which did not include any additional funding for Franklin schools — Warren County’s poorest district — in 2014 or 2015. Elam said flat funding for Franklin was the exact opposite of what Kasich promised when he said poor districts would get more funding and wealthier districts less funding under his plan.

The superintendent said the letter was not intended to be political, though he could see how some might take it that way.

“It was not my intent to break the law. It was my intent to inform our citizens of the gravity of the governor’s budget on education,” Elam said, noting he already had an attorney reviewing his letter for potential legal problems. “I don’t care who the governor is, or who is in the House or the Senate. I want people in there that are going to make decisions that are the best for every boy and girl in the state of Ohio, and not just some boys and girls in the state of Ohio.”

But prosecutors are looking into whether Elam’s actions crossed a legal line. Prosecutors declined further comment Thursday.

Elam said he would comply with the investigation and “anything that comes as a result of that.”

Franklin Board of Education President JoAnn Feltner said the board was aware Elam was sending out the letter and that there was “no formal vote taken to endorse or to object” to it. She declined to comment about the portion of the letter urging parents to campaign against Kasich.

“That was Mr. Elam’s reaction to the governor’s funding, and he is entitled to that reaction,” Feltner said. “I think Mr. Elam’s frustration mirrors the frustration of all of us on the board… I think his intent was to inform the citizens of Franklin of exactly the position the district and the school board was in.”

In the letter, Elam took issue with the fact that Springboro, Mason and Kings — the county’s three wealthiest districts — will receive funding increases in 2014 of 16, 2 and 25 percent, respectively, while Franklin — where 44 percent of students live in poverty — will see no increase. He accuses Kasich of being “untruthful” for saying that poor districts would get more and wealthy districts less.

“The governor’s funding plan has taken from the children that attend the Franklin City Schools and gives to the rich,” Elam wrote. “Frankly, this is both unfair and unbelievable.”

Kasich spokesman Rob Nichols declined to comment about the prosecutor’s investigation, but did address some of the points raised in Elam’s letter about the governor’s funding formula.

“Franklin City Schools will be held harmless under our formula, and will thus not lose any funding over the next two years,” Nichols said. “The district will also benefit from new freedoms from reduced bureaucracy and red tape and will have a chance to receive additional funds from the Straight A Fund – a $300 million program that will reward districts which develop innovative strategies to help their students improve their achievement levels and increase their operational efficiency.

“We look forward to continuing to work with superintendents from all across Ohio to improve student achievement no matter where they live,” he said.

Ohio Democratic Chairman Chris Redfern called the investigation of Franklin schools “convenient” and “a politically-motivated witch hunt.”

“It sends a disturbing message to the people of Ohio that Kasich’s friends might abuse government resources to punish this superintendent who is simply standing up for local school funding that the Governor has stripped away,” Redfern said.

Anna Hipsher, whose 11-year-old son is a sixth-grader at Hunter Elementary School, said she wasn’t aware of Franklin’s funding situation until her son brought Elam’s letter home. She said she was shocked to learn wealthier districts were getting more money and not Franklin.

Hipsher said she would likely write letters to State Rep. Ron Maag and Sen. Shannon Jones expressing her disappointment. She said she hopes others will join her so “maybe we can help change it.”

“It’s sad and it’s not fair,” she said. “Our kids deserve so much better. I didn’t have a good perception of him (Kasich) to begin with. I didn’t vote for him, and now I’m glad I didn’t”