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Ohio Auditor warns Columbus school board may have violated open meeting laws

A man wearing a tie crosses his arms. He also wears of Columbus City Schools pin on his lapel.
Allie Vugrincic
/
WOSU
Columbus City Schools board member Brandon Simmons claims he didn't write a divisive strategy document alone. The Ohio Auditor of State's office said if that's true, the board may have violated open meeting laws.

The Columbus City School Board may have violated Ohio’s open meeting laws with a divisive strategy document, according to a letter from the Ohio Auditor of State’s Office.

Since the document related to the possible closure of up to 20 Columbus City School buildings leaked, board member Bandon Simmons has maintained he didn’t write it alone. He called the document “the product of a collaboration between board members and other stakeholders,” and said that “multiple versions of the document existed.”

In a Tuesday letter to all members of the board and Columbus City Schools Superintendent Angela Chapman, the state auditor’s office writes that Simmon’s comments make it seem like the board circulated drafts of the document or met to discuss it outside of public meetings.

Ohio law prohibits a majority of an elected group from talking about business outside of a public meeting.

“We have not attempted to confirm the accuracy of these allegations. Please be aware if they are true, the activity needs to cease and desist immediately,” reads the letter, signed by Ohio Auditor Keith Faber and Chief Deputy Auditor Robert Hinkle.

It goes on to say that regional staff have been made aware of the claims, which will be included in the next audit of the district.

Several board members, including Sarah Ingles, who admitted to leaking the strategy document, and Board President Christina Vera, have said they were not involved in creating the document.

In one written statement, Vera referred to the document as Simmon’s “personal opinions.”

In another statement, Vera wrote that Simmons was not asked to provide any recommendations.

“(Simmons) recommendations are solely their own and do not represent the perspectives of the Columbus City Schools or the entire Board of Education," that statement reads.

The leaked document suggests strategies to suppress the Columbus Education Association’s negative reaction to a plan to shutter some district schools. CEA members called for Simmon’s resignation after seeing the document.

Simmons apologized for the document on social media, writing, “It was unacceptable not only to be put on paper but also unacceptable to have these thoughts or ideas about our labor partners.”

In that May 23 apology, however, Simmons referred to himself as a “contributor” and reasserted that the document was “discussed in multiple meetings.”

Simmons did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Wednesday.

Columbus City Schools spokeswoman Jaqueline Bryant said the district stands by its previous statements about Simmon’s document and that board members are made aware of Ohio open meeting law requirements.

The board of education is set to have a special meeting Wednesday to discuss an internal investigation into the document incident. They will meet in closed session with an attorney and are not expected to take any official action.

The Auditor of State's letter asks the board to save any relevant documents or electronic records from that likely investigation until the completion of a 2024 audit.

Allie Vugrincic has been a radio reporter at WOSU 89.7 NPR News since March 2023.