Ethics issues on Ohio school board become confrontational

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By Doug Livingston 
Beacon Journal education writer

JONES

JONES

C. Todd Jones, one of the most influential members of the state school board, went on the offense at a board meeting last week, suggesting that if he has ethical problems, so do a lot of other members.

The contentious half-hour discussion occurred because Jones is the subject of an ethics complaint alleging that his job of lobbying for private colleges is in conflict with his role as a policy maker on the board, and he has used his position on the board to benefit his organization.

He is the second to face such issues following a Beacon Journal-NewsOutlet series in November profiling the 19-seat board. Bryan Williams, an elected member from Summit County, had to resign because law prohibits elected officials from also working as lobbyists.

The law is not as black and white for appointed members. There are 11 elected and eight appointed seats on the board.

Jones, appointed by Gov. John Kasich and serving his second term, is president, general counsel and lobbyist for the Association of Independent Universities and Colleges of Ohio (AICUO).

Jones said at Tuesday’s board meeting that he had spent 46 hours studying Ohio ethics law and believes that anyone employed by a college has a conflict when discussing state programs that allow colleges to collect K-12 funding. Some board members are adjunct professors or college officials.

Jones has asked the Ohio Ethics Commission to look into potential conflicts among current and former board members, of which he named 19, who also have worked for colleges and universities.

The Ohio Ethics Commission is the same body reviewing the complaint against him. A spokesperson at Jones’ office said he was unavailable for comment until Tuesday.

Finding the line

Board member Mary Rose Oakar didn’t take lightly Jones’ suggestions that others have ethical issues.

“I resent that,” she said. “I’m going to tell you for the record, you start implicating me in your problem, if you have a problem and I don’t know if you do or not, and I will retaliate because I will defend myself. I’m not going to have you say because I taught school 10 years ago at Tri-C and I’ve been asked to speak and teach elsewhere that somehow I have the same difficulty you are having. That’s baloney.”

Catherine Turcer, a policy analyst with Common Cause Ohio, a non-profit accountability group, says there’s a distinction between Jones and the others.

“The problem isn’t really having two different jobs. It’s about who are you there to serve,” she said.

Turcer said she believes that the state school board should attract educators with knowledge and passion. But there should be a “bright-line rule” to determine if a member’s private interests and employment raise a concern.

Her test is simple.

“If a school board member wants to be a lobbyist, they shouldn’t be on the school board,” she said.

The state’s version of a “bright-line test” is more ambiguous.

Appointed members, like Jones, are allowed to continue lobbying so long as they file disclosure statements on any matter discussed with a state official that might also come before the board where they serve.

Jones told colleagues on Tuesday that his position with the AICUO does not create a conflict, even as he chairs a committee that defines how state funding should be spent on gifted programming, including post-secondary enrollment options. The PSEO program allows Ohio students to earn college credit while in high school at the expense of their public school district or, if in private school, a special state fund.

Jones also chairs a committee on graduation requirements, is vice chair of a committee that represents the state board on legislative issues, and sits on the committee that hires and evaluates the state superintendent.

‘Political smear’

At the meeting, Jones laid out to other members the votes that may be at issue, saying he believes there is no problem.

“I am so confident on my position on this, I voted on the PSEO rules in 2011. Nobody said a word. I voted on another provision that had PSEO in it in 2012. Nobody said a word,” Jones said.

“This is a political smear.”

Fellow board member Michael Collins, a businessman from the Columbus area, had raised questions in December following the series of news stories published around the state.

Collins suggested at a meeting that, “There are potential conflicts of interest in the room.”

Collins later elaborated in an interview with the Beacon Journal. He told a reporter that Jones and Mark Smith, the president of a private college, have jobs that might conflict with their public service on the state school board.

Last week, Collins said in an interview that he apologized to Jones for publicly airing these concerns, but said that potential conflicts remain. He would not comment further.

Jones said during the board meeting Tuesday that public scrutiny and an opinion from the Ohio Ethic Commission could have been avoided.

“Unfortunately, the only reason I had to do that is because Mr. Collins chose to do this in public without asking me personally beforehand because we wouldn’t have come to this and I would have provided this explanation,” Jones said.

Meanwhile, Sarah Roberts, a gifted-education advocate from Vandalia, filed a complaint in December alleging that Jones, who has been compensated more than $220,000 annually from the nonprofit AICUO, should not be voting on or discussing programs that benefit his employer.

“Mr. Jones should exclude himself from these discussions and votes,” Roberts wrote in the complaint, which was forwarded by the Inspector General to the Ohio Ethic Commission on Wednesday.

She accused him of manipulating action of the board Achievement Committee, suppressing votes and supplying questionable information.

She quoted him as saying that previous committee chairs “have not been as enlightened as I” in trying to reach consensus rather than call for a vote.

Conflict acknowledged?

Although Jones takes the position that he has no conflicts, he told the Beacon Journal in an interview last year that he had informed the AICUO board that it would be prudent to have someone else lobby state government on PSEO and dual enrollment programs.

He said at the time: “I would prefer that we establish, that we exclude me from all policy advocacy and policy decision making related to PSEO and dual enrollment programs for the association so that I might be able to maintain my independence as a state board member to advocate what I believe in that area.”

Nonetheless, Jones testified before the Senate on PSEO in May after he said the AICUO had hired someone else to handle the topic.

In November, Jones wrote his own version of the gifted operating standards, which address how state funding for PSEO and other programs should be spent.

That same month, Jones said he failed to properly disclose conversations with the governor’s office about PSEO.

As mandated by the state budget, Jones’ organization met with the Ohio Board of Regents and other interested groups six times between August and October to make recommendations on dual enrollment and other programs.

Doug Livingston can be reached at 330-996-3792 or dlivingston@thebeaconjournal.com.