Illegal Spending on Levy Polling Results in Finding for Recovery in Cleveland Heights- University Heights City School District Audit
Columbus – Auditor of State Keith Faber’s Office released the 2020 financial audit of the Cleveland Heights – University Heights City School District and issued a finding for recovery totaling $34,675 after the District used public money to fund polling for an upcoming levy.
“The law is clear about using public funds on campaign activities like polling,” said Auditor of State Faber. “School districts must be extremely careful in using electioneering techniques paid for by taxpayers. In this case where the polling was clearly directed at “levy voters” and sought information regarding the upcoming levy, it was illegal and the District should know better.”
In October of 2019, prior to accepting the resolution to place a levy on the upcoming ballot, the District entered into a consulting agreement with R Strategy Group (RSG) for the purpose of identifying a polling firm, negotiating a contract for polling services, drafting a public opinion poll directed at likely voters, and aiding in the analysis of data and research.
The District agreed to pay RSG $6,000 for these services and to reimburse $28,675 to RSG for polling services conducted by Lake Research (Lake), totaling $34,675. The payment was authorized by Treasurer A. Scott Gainer. Superintendent Elizabeth Kirby approved the content of the polling questions, of which several asked specifically about the District’s proposed tax levy, including if the person being surveyed would vote in favor or against the levy, the specific reason for voting in favor or against the levy, asking about statements people were making about the levy and their opinion on the statements, and asking if there was a convincing reason to vote in favor of a levy.
Further discussion and finalization of the polling questions, as well as the actual polling, occurred subsequently to the Board’s resolution requesting certification from the County Auditor on November 5, 2019.
Lake also submitted a report to District employees/staff regarding the results of the survey, which was titled, “Findings Based on a Survey of 500 Likely March 2020 Primary Voters.” Five of the six bullet points on the “Strategic Summary” section of the report contained references to voters and their opinions. An additional section of the report was devoted to “Dynamics of Support and Opposition to the Levy.” By utilizing RSG for services relating to the support of a levy campaign, the District made payments in violation of the Ohio Rev. Code.
A finding for recovery was issued against R Strategy Group, Elizabeth Kirby, Superintendent, and A. Scott Gainer, Treasurer and his bonding company, Traveler’s Casualty and Surety Company of America, jointly and severally, in the amount of $34,675, in favor of Cleveland Heights-University Heights City School District’s General Fund.