The Buckeye Valley School District improperly spent $9,750 on “political activities to help promote” an unsuccessful 2014 bond issue campaign, according to the State Auditor’s Office.
Auditor Dave Yost released an audit of the district Thursday, stating that the money has now been repaid to the district.
State law prohibits using public funds to support or oppose the passage of school levies or bond issues. Yost’s office first called the public’s attention to the issue in October 2015, just before the school district’s vote on another bond issue. The 2014 bond issue was rejected by voters; the 2015 issue was approved by voters.
“School districts are entrusted with public dollars to promote education – not school levies,” Yost said in a prepared statement. “Now that the funds have been returned, I expect the district to spend them in accordance with the law.”
According to the statement from Yost’s office, “On March 18, 2014, the district’s board of education hired architecture firm OHM Advisors to assess the district’s three elementary school facilities and provide cost estimates for renovations. … Included in the scope of services was the employment of Aimpoint Research LLC, a public relations/engagement firm, to provide community engagement with the likely goal of placing a bond issue for building renovations on the November 2014 ballot.”
The board paid architectural firm OHM Advisors $60,000 in March 2014. The agreement allowed Aimpoint Research, a subcontractor of OHM, to provide up to $30,000 in “community engagement” services.
In September 2014, Yost’s office received a complaint that public money was being paid to Aimpoint to promote the bond issue. Yost’s October 2015 report stated that OHM and Aimpoint provided several campaign-related services on behalf of the school district.
OHM invoiced the district, and payments were made directly to the firm. When Aimpoint performed work as a subcontractor, it submitted invoices to OHM for payment, Yost’s office said Thursday.
The prepared statement from the auditor’s office states: “Aimpoint was required to conduct two public meetings as part of the agreement. During an August 18, 2014, district facilities meeting, Aimpoint’s CEO spoke about campaign strategy and how to pass the proposed bond issuance. The next day, August 19, 2014, a board member was recorded saying the district hired OHM and Aimpoint ‘to aid us in passing the bond issue.’ On September 3, 2014, Aimpoint billed OHM $2,500 for the meeting, and OHM later billed the district for the amount on September 29.
“In addition, the agreement required Aimpoint to conduct a phone survey, which was administered in September 2014. The survey included statements informing citizens of the bond issue and questions designed to measure their support. Aimpoint billed OHM $14,500 for the survey, and OHM later billed the district for the full amount. The Auditor of State’s office concluded that half of the survey statements and questions were related to the promotion of the bond levy.
“On October 6, 2014, the district paid OHM $2,500 for Aimpoint’s attendance at the facilities meeting and $7,250 for half of the survey costs. A finding for recovery in the amount of $9,750 was issued jointly and severally against OHM Advisors and Aimpoint Research LLC.”
Aimpoint Research LLC and OHM Advisors have repaid $9,750 to the district as of March 9, 2016, the auditor’s office said Thursday.
The matter is now considered closed by the state. “It is complete at this time and there won’t be any further action except our regularly scheduled audits,” said Dominic Binkley, public information officer for the auditor’s office.
Reached for comment Thursday, Justine Santschi, Buckeye Valley school board president, said, “We have read the audit and would refer you to the statement on our website.”
The statement posted on the Buckeye Valley district’s website thanks the auditor office for the district’s fiscal 2015 audit and for giving the district the “highest rating for its compliance procedures.” However, it also states that the “Buckeye Valley Local School District, as well as its legal counsel, disagree with the finding of the Ohio Auditor of State’s office that the district violated Ohio Revised Code Section 9.03 (B,C), during the 2014 bond issue campaign.”
“It is our hope that this brings this issue to a final resolution,” the website states. “Moving forward, the district is excited about the passage of the most recent bond issue and beginning this new chapter for the Buckeye Valley Local School District.”
Despite Yost’s October 2015 “public interest report” that alleged the infraction, the district’s $31.25 million bond issue passed by two votes in November 2015. Its passage is enabling the construction of two new elementary schools.
A similar bond issue — the one Aimpoint first worked on — was rejected in November 2014.
The district is on spring break this week. Superintendent Andrew Miller and Treasurer Kelly Moore could not be reached for comment.
D. Anthony Botkin may be reached at 740-413-0902 or on Twitter @dabotkin