The State Auditor’s Office has determined that a public relations firm did utilize public funds to promote a 2014 bond issue campaign for the Buckeye Valley Local School District.
The Auditor’s Office released a “public interest report” Thursday detailing its audit of the work performed during the campaign on behalf of the school district by architectural firm OHM Advisors and its subcontractor, Aimpoint Research.
“The law is clear — public dollars may not be used to promote school levies,” Auditor Dave Yost said in a press release. “All of Ohio’s school districts must be careful not to cross the line from educational to promotional — and not knowing about an illegal expenditure doesn’t make it legal.”
Yost’s report comes less than two weeks before Buckeye Valley voters will decide the fate of another bond issue to improve elementary school facilities.
The Buckeye Valley school board entered into a $60,000 contract with architectural firm OHM Advisors on March 18, 2014, to provide consultation regarding upgrades to three elementary schools and to determine the amount of the bond issuance to propose to district voters. The agreement included a provision which would allow Aimpoint Research, a subcontractor for OHM, to provide up to $30,000 in “community engagement” services related to the bond issue.
The district’s legal counsel approved the contract between the board of education and OHM and, according to the auditor’s press release, the agreement “on its face did not violate Ohio Revised Code.”
On Sept. 3, 2014, the Auditor’s Office received a complaint that public money was being paid to Aimpoint to promote the bond issue. According to the public interest report from Yost’s office, the subsequent audit — which evaluated records from July 1, 2014, to June 30, 2015 — revealed that OHM and Aimpoint provided multiple campaign-related services on behalf of the school district.
In its memo to the Auditor’s Office, the school district issued a memo dated Oct. 21, 2015, part of which contends that the report is vague and offers no evidence of wrongdoing committed by Buckeye Valley Local Schools:
“Regarding your ‘Report,’ it is disappointing to see that it is written with such broad brush strokes, that it fails to include any evidence that did not support your pre-ordained conclusion, and though the Preface claims to ‘call attention to where the lines are drawn’ the ‘Report’ fails to provide any such lines. Instead, it simply lists information that was gathered, much of which is not connected to the BVLSD or its actions, and then concludes there was a violation. Readers will simply be left with the task of trying to determine how and why your Office believes there was a violation, and what, if any, violation was committed because this ‘Report’ has failed to identify those undrawn lines.”
Also in its memo, the school district criticizes the manner in which the Auditor’s Office compiled its report and questions the timing of the release of the material so close to the Nov. 3 election:
“This memo is being provided in response to the ‘Public Interest Report’ being issued by the State Auditor’s office concerning expenditures made by a consulting firm, hired by the Board, to survey community opinion about school district facilities. Although the employment of consultants is specifically authorized by the Ohio Revised Code, your office has presented a hastily-assembled report concluding that these expenditures were improper. Now, less than two weeks before a very important election in the Buckeye Valley School District dealing with school facilities, your office is seeking to publicize this report, though this matter has been in your office for more than one year. For reasons which remain unclear, your office is choosing to violate its own long-standing policy of not issuing reports within two weeks of any election so that it can issue this particular report. This memo states our objections to this process and the report itself.”
According to its own policy, the Auditor’s Office does not release audit reports within 14 days of an election. The release of the public interest report, according to the Auditor’s Office, was delayed due to a request by the Buckeye Valley school board, which asked for more time to respond to the report. The Auditor’s Office press release noted that Buckeye Valley Superintendent Andy Miller “acknowledged in writing that he understood the audit would be released today (Oct. 22) during the traditional hold period.”
“What could we possibly say to the voters after the election if they discovered we withheld information from them prior to their decision at the ballot box?” Yost said in the press release. “The Auditor of State has no interest in any local election or its outcome. It has every interest, and duty, to report its findings regarding the conduct of local governments and their compliance with applicable law.”
Yost said the report will now be forwarded to the Auditor of State’s Central Region for consideration as part of the district’s Fiscal Year 2015 financial audit.
In the press release from the Auditor’s Office it was also noted that, “Under Ohio law, an expenditure of public money contrary to law is subject to a finding for recovery even if the entity was unaware of the law — that is, governmental entities are strictly liable for spending decisions.”
Yost said auditors in conjunction with legal staff would make the determination if there is a finding for recovery.
Andrew Carter can be reached at 740-413-0902 and on Twitter @AndrewCarterDG.