July 10, 2003


Opposition explained —
Board member Firestone defends anti-levy letter

At a special meeting June 23, school board member William Firestone defended his decision to submit to the News an open letter to the Board of Education explaining his opposition to a proposal that would place two property tax levies on the November ballot.

The tension-filled meeting underscored what appears to be a split on the board about the levy proposal. Firestone’s letter was the catalyst not only for holding the meeting but for a feeling of unsettledness from the board on the proposal. Board members not only discussed Firestone’s letter, they also talked about process and about the Ohio open meetings law.

Noting that “at some point the train derailed,” board member Rich Bullock said he was worried that the meeting’s discussion may polarize board members and their positions on the levies. “I know we have to get back to something that will be a win-win for the district,” he said.

At the meeting, Firestone said that he wrote the letter to stop a vote by the school board on the proposal, which would ask voters to renew a 1.2-mill permanent improvement levy and a 10.1-mill emergency levy. Firestone argued that more public discussion was needed on the proposal, which he has indicated he will oppose.

The letter was published in the News on June 12, the day of a regularly scheduled school board meeting during which the board was expected to vote to put the levies on the Nov. 4 ballot. In t he letter, Firestone said that the board should place on the ballot the permanent improvement levy, which funds technology and buses, but not the emergency levy, which funds operating expenses for the district.

Board members agreed to hold the June 23 meeting after Firestone distributed his letter, saying that they needed to discuss communication issues and “board dynamics,” as the discussion was listed on the meeting agenda. At the beginning of the meeting, Bruce Heckman, who moderated the discussion, advised the board members to limit their talk to board process and whether they were feeling excluded from discussions and decisions, but not to discuss significant issues.

Board members were obviously upset with Firestone’s letter. Board president Tom Haugsby said that Firestone should have talked to him or the board if Firestone was dissatisfied with the school board or its president. Instead, “you elected to take a much more drastic measure” and released the letter publicly, Haugsby told Firestone.

Board member Mary Campbell-Zopf indicated that Firestone undermined the trust that board members must have in one another in order to have, she said, “really deep discussions.”

“When I read the letter, I felt I didn’t know if I could work on that level again,” she said. Campbell-Zopf told Firestone that his letter “won’t help you in the long run, nor will you help the public have trust in the board.”

She also said that it is “bad protocol to go public” with concerns “without giving your colleagues a chance” to respond. If you have a problem, the first phone call you make or the first letter you distribute isn’t to the newspaper, Campbell-Zopf said. “The first phone call is to the president” of the board, she said.

Two board members also said that they felt left out of decisions and board process. For instance, Firestone and board member Angela Wright said that they were upset by a decision by Superintendent Tony Armocida to appoint cochairs of a committee to oversee a levy campaign.

In a memo dated June 5, Armocida said that Carl Maneri and Richard Lapedes “have agreed to cochair” the committee, and “with the board’s approval” Armocida would work with Maneri and Lapedes to compile a list of possible committee members. The memo was addressed to the district’s administrative staff and the school board but was not distributed to the public. The board office released the memo last week to the News after the paper requested it.

Wright said that she was “taken aback” to learn that the cochairs had been picked, and that the school board members should have had the opportunity to “weigh in” on the selection. “I think it’s too important,” she said. “That’s why I was upset.”

After the meeting, Haugsby said that it has been the prerogative or the duty of the superintendent and the school board president to ask people to serve on levy committees. Haugsby said that he and Armocida discussed possible committee members “who have track records of effectiveness,” a move he called prudent and good planning. He also said that the board members’ criticism was fair and that it “would be better if I was consulting with them” about the committee.

Armocida, who did not attend the June 23 meeting, said this week that the process he and Haugsby have followed on the committee is “not any different” from past years. The superintendent also said he thought that “doing a little bit of groundwork ahead of time would be helpful for the board.” Armocida said that a levy committee has not been selected.

During the special meeting, Firestone also accused the school board of holding illegal retreats to discuss the district’s Education Plan, which outlines a budget and the goals of each of the school system’s three buildings each year. While the board can hold retreats for what Firestone called “information gathering,” he maintained that “we can’t hold retreats to discuss policy.”

Firestone accused the board of “playing fast and loose with the rules.” “We all go along with it,” he said, including himself in the comment.

Others disagreed, contending that the date and time of the retreats are announced and that the sessions are open to the public.

Campbell-Zopf responded by saying that the board needed more information before it could discuss Firestone’s accusation. She said that retreats are open to the public and that they allow the board to discuss issues in depth.

Armocida also said that the retreats are open to the public and were scheduled to hold a longer, more relaxed discussion on the Education Plan. In the future the district may call those sessions special meetings, he said.

—Robert Mihalek