STOW: A Franklin County judge has ruled that the Stow-Munroe Falls City School levy committee violated the Ohio Revised Code by not reporting the payment of legal fees by the district.
Common Pleas Judge David W. Fais determined late last month that the payment of $20,000 for legal services in 2009 was an in-kind contribution by the district and should have been reported in the campaign finance statement.
The suit filed in June 2011 by school board member Rod Armstrong charged that the board used tax dollars to pay attorney fees for the levy committee in violation of state law.
District spokeswoman Jacquie Mazziotta said the levy committee is independent of the district and is comprised of local business owners, parents and residents.
“The Franklin County Court of Common Pleas ruled that payment of levy attorney fees is an in-kind contribution to the levy committee, which has to be reported,” said Warner Mendenhall, Armstrong’s attorney via email. “Because it is illegal for the school district to support a levy committee financially, Rod’s lawsuit is an effort to stop these payments.”
When the issue was first brought up, Mazziotta said, the levy committee’s treasurer went ahead and amended the finance report to reflect the attorney costs.
The battle over the legal fees came amid a fight Armstrong was waging with the board and committee over statements his own committee had made over the levy.
Armstrong said the levy committee had to declare all its contributions, even if they are from a school district or a government entity.
“What you have here is a classic case of a school district or government entity using the taxpayers’ money to pass their own levy,” Armstrong said. “That’s exactly what they have done. They have used the taxpayers’ money to pass their levy.”
The court ruling states that because the campaign was ongoing, the payment of fees for the committee was a method of influencing the result of the election.
“We are puzzled by Judge Fais’ decision regarding how something that took place more than a year after an election could be construed as activity used to influence the outcome,” Mazziotta said.
She added the district is weighing whether to appeal the ruling.
In spite of the legal fight, Armstrong said his experience as a board member has been a good one.
“I’ve been able to get the board to talk more and be a little more transparent than what they were before and I am still going to keep fighting for that,” he said. “There are still some procedural issues that need to be resolved but overall I want to hang in there and do the right thing.”
The district is also facing litigation from a case filed in August 2012 in Summit County Court of Common Pleas in which Armstrong alleges the board broke state laws concerning open meetings and open records over an issue with a principal.
The lawsuit wound up in federal court, but has since been sent back to Summit County Court of Common Pleas.
“It’s unusual for a member of the board of education to engage in such litigious conduct, is unwilling to communicate other than seek disputes and speaks only through his lawyer and formal lawsuits,” Mazziotta said.
Mazziotta said the district is seeking to have the latter case dismissed.
Heather Beyer can be reached at HMBeyer@aol.com