School district should repay misspent funds

In October 2019, the Cleveland Heights-University Heights City School District commissioned a survey of “500 likely March 2020 primary voters” in the district from R Strategy Group (RSG) and Lake Research Partners (LRP), costing taxpayers $34,675. An investigation by the Ohio Auditor of State found the survey work performed was in support of the levy campaign. The levy, Issue 26 on the March 2020 primary ballot, asked voters to approve an $8.9 million annual property tax levy increase.

In January 2020, Cleveland Heights resident Garry Kanter submitted a complaint to the State Auditor of Ohio alleging public tax dollars were being spent on a survey that violated Ohio Revised Code prohibiting local school districts from spending public money to influence elections. 

Kanter provided evidence from the survey itself, as well as e-mail correspondence between the district and its consultants, to support the allegation that the intent of the survey was to help the district position the levy for passage.

In February 2020, the state’s Special Audit Task Force “determined to open a preliminary audit and investigation into the allegations.”

The Ohio Auditor of State Special Investigations Unit issued its findings in a Case Closing Memo (Case # 2020-CA11101) on April 21, 2020. The State Auditor found:

  • “The polling was performed in an effort to support the passage of the levy.”
  • “The District’s response states that the District agrees with our position that the work ultimately performed by RSG and LRP was in support of the levy campaign. However, the District maintains that their purpose was to communicate with the residents of the District and that the work performed by RSG and LRP was contrary to the work for which the District had contracted. The District’s position is undermined by the facts which indicate the District was aware of the scope of the work intended to be performed by RSG and LRP prior to the work being performed.”
  • “Even if we accept the District’s position that it did not intend to have work performed in support of the levy campaign, this does not excuse the payment of $34,675 in public funds for such a result. The District should be actively pursuing repayment of these misspent funds.”

The memo also stated that “the facts clearly support the issuance of a Finding For Recovery (FFR)."

In a July 13 e-mail, the Northeast Region Auditor's office confirmed that the Special Investigation Unit's findings are part of the CH-UH district's 2020 financial audit. A public report will be issued when the audit is complete.

We believe all citizens and taxpayers in the district should want to see the district recover the misused public funds and spend the funds on the children attending the schools, rather than on illegal efforts to influence elections. We hope that in the future the school district, its board and employees, will more closely follow state law and not try to “game” the citizens who are funding the district.

Jim and Mary Hurley

Jim and Mary Hurley have been residents of Cleveland Heights for the past 15 years.

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Volume 13, Issue 8, Posted 9:46 AM, 07.31.2020