Opinion: Kettering School District Targeted

Political consultants knocking at district doors for public funds

The smell of a dead tax levy seems to be what political consultants are circling for, and the failed Kettering Schools levy is no different.  Less than one day after the 6.9 mil school levy failed to pass in Kettering, Paul Fallon of Fallon Research, a political consultancy firm, contacted the district leadership with a sales pitch.

In a carefully-crafted e-mail message sent to Treasurer Steve Clark and Superintendent James Schoenlein, Fallon wrote about his expertise in working with districts in Ohio and across the country and offered his help in passing the levy, should the district attempt to put it again on the ballot.

Fallon advised Clark and Schoenlein to “formulate a carefully scripted response to answer” why the levy will be placed on the ballot again and gave advice on how to thwart organized opposition to another levy effort.

Fallon Research came to the attention of Greene County residents several months ago, when documents related to the relationship between Avakian Consulting and the City of Xenia were made available to the public.  Further research into Avakian’s background led to Olentangy School District, where the former communications director Carole Dorn-Bell fraudulently spent district funds to hire Avakian consultant Joel Gagne to “aid with the levy.” 

The rabbit hole runs deep and the payment scheme was difficult to discern at first.  In 2008, Dorn-Bell bypassed the normal purchasing procedures in the school district and had the Franklin County Educational Services Department invoice the Olentangy School District on behalf of Avakian Consulting for “consulting services.”  As it is against Ohio election law to spend public funs for electioneering purposes, the Purchase Order was labeled “Superintendent Outreach” when in fact the funds were funneled indirectly to Avakian via Franklin County.  The Franklin County Prosecutor’s office declined to pursue this case and did not respond to additional questions about this evidence.

In an e-mail exchange between Paul Fallon, Bill Gagne and Carole Dorn-Bell, the machine politics of passing a school levy are made evident.  Dorn-Bell emphasizes that “cut lists” need to be made public in order to nudge people into voting in favor of a levy.  Paul Fallon responded with advice on how to avoid Ohio Sunshine laws and hide levy efforts through the use of private funds.

Later after these events Carole Dorn-Bell left the Olentangy School District and was hired by Avakian Consulting, the very firm she paid $15,000 on behalf of the district to aid with the levy.

Like Paul Fallon, Gagne, a former aide in the Bill Clinton Whitehouse lends his political services to school districts and municipalities seeking to pass tax levies.  Gagne was paid $25,000 by the City of Xenia in March to help the city with the passage of a tax levy, which failed to pass on May 4.  A lawsuit was filed accusing the city officials of fraud, misappropriation of funds and violation of Ohio election laws; the suit was dismissed on technical grounds.  

Now that the Kettering Schools officials also are facing a failed levy, it appears that the same political consultants causing chaos and discord among residents in other cities and districts across Ohio are hungry for the money of Kettering taxpayers and are knocking at the doors of the district.

So far we have no evidence that James Schoenlein is willing to engage Paul Fallon or Avakian Consulting for their services, but should they choose to even entertain the idea, we will be there to investigate, ask questions and expose any potential skirting of Ohio election finance laws.

The Kettering Schools officials seem to be honorable and respectful people, and the schools have a positive reputation among local districts.  Entangling themselves in a relationship with political consultants will certainly mar this image.

In an e-mail message sent out to officials, Jim Trent, the President of the Board of Education outlined reasonable steps to be taken towards a future approach to cuts or another attempt for a smaller levy.  While his emphasis does not seem to be strong enough on expense reduction and cuts, he is trying to pursue a levy and pass it through legal channels, without involving the fraudulent expenditure of public funds.

We hope that the Kettering Schools officials will maintain this course and avoid any public and embarrassing relationships with questionable consulting firms.