The process for updating to school buildings has been ongoing for years, and from the start, the board declared they wanted to build expensive new buildings. They are following through on that declaration, and more – the board has proposed a ridiculous highball number ($55 million) and tacked on an operating levy of one mill, just to remind parents that they can hold the school children hostage. If you are voting for this $55 million plan, you are also voting for a replacement (probably another $25 million) of the Stevenson building, because the plan under funds upgrades to the building.
The board also now has no defense from the charge that the finance committee was a policy deciding group that should have been open under the Ohio Open Meeting laws.
How highballs work in negotiations
The school board has known since the G4G group went public with opposition to the superintendent’s request for a $50 million facility plan last year that the first try at a levy would fail. There has been unprecedented opposition to the school’s attempt to manipulate the facility process, even the most optimistic on the board must have known that the $50 million plan was not going to pass. Given that fact, the board decided that a highball bid was the way to set expectations for the future.
Negotiation is all about setting the expectation for a “good number”, a price that seems normal to pay. Some ruthless negotiators find no worth in starting mid range, a high number sets the top of the range, and brings up the bottom. If the school board carefully cut into the plan as presented by Culp last year, they might have come up with a plan that cost $45 million. But the board saw that as leaving money on the table, they said, “if you are going to lose the first bid anyway, go for the big money”.
Make no mistake – this sort of hard negotiation is not normal for a Grandview Heights board. Most levies in the recent past have been in the normal range of past operating levies. Most levies pass with 60% in favor. There was one ridiculous levy attempt back in 2002 that was a big lesson for the board, and which will be used as a template for the present.
The fantasy levy of 2002
The school board of May 2002 used a similar tactic for highballing the voters, with a twist. The “incremental operating” levy asked for 9.8 mills, already a high number. They then added an additional 4 mills, to take effect the next year, and 4 more the next year. Only 35% of the voters were in favor, the biggest loser of all levies.
Nobody expected that levy to pass – but it set the expectation for the “right number” higher. That fall, the voters approved 10.7 mills, the highest millage issue in the history of the school.
The board that approved the original highball levy should have been immediately recall voted out of office, the fantasy incremental levy was an insult to the community that should have been punished. But in the minds of those board members, they saw it as a needed hardball tactic. And the approval of the fall levy was a submission by the community. We got played, and we didn’t fight it.
Stevenson replacement in the future is part of the $55 million bid
When Culp presented his initial plan for the school upgrades in September 2017, he included $6 million in refurbish work on the Stevenson building. That money was nearly zeroed out by the finance committee, they said “we are only looking at doing security and ADA upgrades at Stevenson”. If the school board under funds the maintenance of Stevenson – and nothing will stop them – that will place the closing of the building at the top of the board’s list. Shortly after the new middle school is completed, the board will come back to the voters with irrefutable evidence (because they created the problems) that Stevenson MUST be replaced. Add another $25 million to the construction costs, in the near future.
Two “no on the levy” votes will be needed
The highball bid of $55 million will not pass. But it will set the expectation high, and allow the board to come back to the voters with a $50 million plan in 2019. Cutting a few frills will be presented as painful cuts (funny how all the real pain will be suffered by the taxpayers).
There will need to be two consecutive no votes on the school’s levies before the board can be convinced to come down to a real number that will get the support of the community. This will be hard, because another, higher operation levy will be sure to be tacked onto the second bond levy. The board will threaten major cuts in after school programs, and cuts to classes that are offered. The re-implementation of activity fees will be on the table for the second vote for sure.
Unfortunately the best solution for a school board that is extorting the community – voting out the present board – will not be up for a regular vote until November 2019, when Palmisciano and Brannan can be replaced. If Truett and the other two board members elected in 2017 want to cause maximum damage to the community before they are voted out, the three of them can run the board until 2021.
The board broke the laws on open meetings
Back when the school board created the closed to the public Task Force, they were breaking the rules for open meeting in Ohio. Despite their claim that the meetings were only advisory to the superintendent, it was clear that they were acting in the shadows of the larger public facilities meetings, by controlling the information that was presented, and the choices that would be allowed on the online surveys. But because they created no documents, and no meeting notes, it was impossible to point to a red flag that could be used to prove the board was manipulating the process from the shadows.
The school board were completely, arrogantly in violation of open meeting laws for the Finance Committee. The board openly rejected requests for public attendance at finance meetings, they refused to record meetings, they say they didn’t take notes. The final report from the finance committee was adopted whole by the board, without even pretending that there was some discussion between board members before the vote. The facility plan now being followed by the board is completely a product of a group that failed to announce meetings, allow for public attendance, or take notes, as required by Ohio open meeting laws.
For those who think nothing was wrong with the board out-sourcing the decision making process to the Finance committee – what if the committee came back to the next board meeting, and made more recommendations? Then came back with more recommendations the month after that? And the board repeatedly voted to follow those recommendations, no discussions, five votes yes? If out-sourcing the planning and recommendation process completely to a closed committee would be wrong, what makes it right for even one meeting?
History doesn’t support the Grandview board in this question. The Columbus school board has many lawyers on their staff, who no doubt told that board they would not be in violation of Ohio open meeting laws during their superintendent search. And yet they were found to be in violation of the rules by state auditor Yost. The board members might be found personally responsible for the costs involved with re-starting the search.
The Grandview school board will say they had their lawyer check the legality of the finance committee, and he will claim they are following the rules. He will be wrong. I think the board will lose any legal challenge to the way they used the finance committee (and using the finance committee to decide the political question of adding an operating levy is a no-brainer losing issue for the board).
A message for the G4G
I’m not a member of the G4G group, I had nothing to do with the formation of the organization. Whatever they chose to do about the school levy will be a result of their internal discussion. But I can offer them some thoughts on the situation.
I really wish I could be the one who challenges the school board in court over the failure to follow open meeting laws. But I don’t want it to be painted as “the cranky old man who uses law technicalities to harass the board”, which would be the board’s response to me. The general public tends to look down on individuals who go after school boards in court, and it can generate sympathy for the board.
The G4G group should have meetings, open discussion, consultation with a lawyer. They should have hands in their air voting. In my opinion, they should, as an organization, take the board to court, and prove the board broke the open meeting laws.
Once that issue is settled, the board will be forced to go back to zero on the entire facility process. I hope the board members can be held financially responsible for the $250K spent on a failed facility process. If not, petitioning to have the board removed in a recall election should be a simple task.
I’m guessing that the G4G doesn’t want to take this drastic step. The whole reasoning for the creation of the group, as listed on their website, was to prevent a big fight over the facilities, and peacefully influence the board to go with a lower cost on the renovations. That option is gone.
If they are not stopped, the board has made it clear that they are going to punish the community, with repeated levies, with cuts to programs, with dividing the community into fighting factions that will hurt Grandview for years to come.
Taking the board to court is a big step, but passively allowing them to break Ohio law is allowing Grandview to slide down. Step up, G4G. This whole problem was caused by the Grandview Heights school board, and they need to be held accountable.