Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Bad Optics

During the Spring of 2006, Superintendent Dale McVey recruited Dave Lundregan to chair the committee set up to campaign for the passage of the bond levy which would ultimately fund the construction of Washington Elementary and Bradley High School. Mr. Lundregan in turn recruited Bobbi Mueller as co-chair. They named the campaign "Our Kids Can't Wait." As we all know, the campaign was successful. Washington Elementary is open, and the construction of Bradley High School is well underway (as I can observe from my window as I write this).

Why is it that a campaign committee is established when a levy needs to be put on the ballot? It would seem to me that if the district leadership does a good job of educating the community continuously about how money is being used and where it comes from, when the time comes that more money is needed, the community would be well-informed and supportive.

Instead, the district leadership sets up these campaign committees and gives them the task convince the majority of the voters, in a short period of time, that a pile of money is needed. It is a tough and expensive task to overcome the initial negative reaction folks have to being surprised with a request for more money, especially when the amount is substantial.

The "Our Kids Can't Wait" team decided that a community survey was in order. They contracted with Saperstein Associates, a Columbus based public opinion research firm, who designed and executed the survey. I was one of the folks the called, and spent a good deal of time on the phone with the interviewer. The questions were quite interesting, and I've long tried to get someone to share the results with me.

These surveys aren't cheap. Saperstein Associates charged the campaign committee a total of $18,300 to design the survey, perform the interviews, and analyze the results. Another $10,900 was spent with Burges & Burges, a political strategy firm based in Cleveland. In total the committee spent about $45,000 on this campaign.

Where does that money come from?

That information must be filed with the Board of Elections, so while I was down there dealing with some other paperwork associated with being a candidate for Hilliard School Board, I asked to see copies of the "Our Kids Can't Wait" campaign finance reports.

The majority of the contributors were individuals, PTOs, and other small organizations who put in $50 to a few hundred dollars. While their numbers were many, the total dollars raised from these folks was a small fraction of the total funding needed.

Edwards Golf Communities also put $2,000 into the fund. Edwards is the developer of Ballantrae. That makes it easy to understand their interest in seeing the levy pass: the construction of Washington Elementary had been long anticipated by Ballantrae residents, and would be an important selling point to potential future homebuyers.

One major contributor was Fanning Howey, who gave $10,000. Fanning Howey is a firm that specializes in the architecture, engineering and project management of school construction. It also happens to be the firm that was hired by the school district, for a fee of $2.2. million, to be the project manager for the construction of Bradley High School.

Fifth Third Bank also put in $10,000. When a bond levy passes, the district sells municipal bonds to raise the cash to build the schools. Fifth Third will be handling $60 million of these bonds, and their commission could be expected to be substantial.

Burges & Burges also gave $500 (after having invoiced the committee the $10,900 mentioned above).

A boss of mine sometimes used the phrase "Bad Optics" to mean something just didn't look good. To me, there's some bad optics associated with having businesses contribute to political causes which put money right back in their pockets. In this case, Fanning Howey and Fifth Third fit into that category.

When I served on the Board of the Hilliard Education Foundation, we weren't shy about asking for money from corporations who made a lot of money doing business with Hilliard City Schools. I suspect that this is the spirit in which Fanning Howey and Fifth Third Bank were solicited by the "Our Kids Can't Wait" campaign.

But there is a fundamental difference between what HEF does, and the purpose of this committee. Contributors to HEF know the money is granted directly to teachers to fund some of their great ideas that can't be paid for with tax revenue.

But a successful levy campaign would put millions of dollars of taxpayer money in the coffers of Fanning Howey and Fifth Third. As altruistic as their contributions might be, it still has bad optics.

My solution is to not use these levy campaign committees at all. Don't get into these situations of needing a lot of money to run a campaign in the first place.

Our administrative team has public relations/communications folks on staff. All we need is a communications strategy to effectively educate and inform the people of our community about the economics of the school system. There are hundreds of professional educators in our system, so wouldn't you think that the development of lesson plans for this subject is right up someone's alley?


  1. I suppose the thinking of the school board is that it's easier to manipulate people through advertising (paid for by others) than level with them.

    It won't work with me. I won't be voting for any levy unless you're on the board.

    Regarding the big picture of finance and development, my brother-in-law says that part of the problem is that Hilliard lacks a city manager. Supposedly it was approved by the major but we still lack one...

  2. Interesting comment about Hilliard needing a city manager. My understanding is that this is an alternative form of government in which there is an elected council, but no mayor, and the city manager is appointed by the council to carry out its instructions.

    While it might be easy to think that a city manager and a mayor have the same power (i.e. neither can enact laws, only the council can do that), one significant difference is that a city manager can be fired by the council any time they want.

    We also need to remember that the City of Hilliard and Hilliard City Schools are two completely independent entities. Neither has statutory authority over the other.


  3. There is no difference between the donations those companies give the Hilliard Education Foundation and the levy campaign committees. The corporations are attempting to curry favor with the district in both situations.

    It is silly and naive (as well as self-serving) to believe otherwise. That's not say there's anything illegal or unethical about either set of donations, since they're all disclosed. The voter can decide whether or not it's pertinent when voting.

    Your premise seems to be that the levy campaign committees are up to no good, but the HEF isn't. I'd say that's rather presumptuous, wouldn't you?

  4. Really - you don't see the difference?

    The money these corporations give to HEF goes directly to teachers who use it for programming for the kids. Yes, the administrators who do the arm twisting know they have some leverage over the vendors - the threat that if the vendors don't give to HEF the vendor may lose business.

    The money given to the campaign committee is used to convince the public that they should approve a levy that will result in direct payments to the corporations.

    Note that I didn't say any of this is illegal - it just has 'bad optics.'

    But the real point of the story is that if the district leadership would do a better job of routine communications with the public, there would be no need for these campaign committees and their big money budgets (much of which is used to pay for surveys to find out what voters are thinking, which wouldn't be needed with a better communications program), and therefore no need for these improprietous contributions.