State Auditor Dave Yost released an audit today looking at Value Learning and Teaching (VLT) Academy’s 2010-2011 school year, and the findings are not pretty. The charter school, which is located in downtown Cincinnati, was found to be potentially overpaying in multiple instances — including potential conflicts of interest.
“Those who are entrusted with taxpayer dollars must take special care and spend them wisely,” Yost said in a statement. “This school appears to have management issues that must be addressed quickly.”
In a potential conflict of interest, the school paid Echole Harris, daughter of the school’s superintendent, $82,000 during the school year and $17,000 for a summer contract for the position of EMIS coordinator, who helps provide data from VLT Academy to the state. Mysteriously, the school did not disclose the summer contract in its financial statements. The school says the superintendent abstained from all decisions related to Harris and presented the summer contract to the school board. Still, Yost referred the situation to the Ohio Ethics Commission.
The audit also criticized VLT Academy for approving a $249,000 bid for janitorial services that were owned and provided by a school employee. The bid was the most expensive among other offers ranging between $82,000 and $135,600. According to the school’s own minutes, “Each company states that they can deliver a work product that will meet or exceed the standards provided in our checklist,” adding little justification to the high payment and potential conflict of interest. The school insists its pick was the best qualified because it offered additional services. The bid approval was also referred to the Ohio Ethics Commission.
The school was found to be overpaying its IT director as
well. Keenan Cooke’s salary for the 2010-2011 school year was supposed to
be $55,000, but the school overpaid him by $3,333 with no record of
intent. The state asked for Cooke and Judy McConnell, VLT Academy’s
fiscal officer, to return the excess payment to the state. The school acknowledged McConnell's responsibility.
To make the potentially excess payments worse, VLT Academy had a net asset deficiency of $412,754 as of June 30, 2011, according to the audit. The school promised the auditor it will cut costs and find revenue generators to make up for the loss.
Some people might call it the “Case of the Conveniently Disappearing Blog Item.”
In an instance of revising history to suit changing political circumstances that would make old Soviet-style bureaucrats proud, a conservative anti-tax group has deleted a nasty blog item attacking a local official now that the person has agreed to help a fundraiser for the group.
Chiquita Brands International decided to move its headquarters from Cincinnati primarily due to logistical reasons involving limited flights at the region's airport, said CEO Fernando Aguirre in a recent interview.
The company first considered moving its headquarters five years ago, he added.
Aguirre's comments are from an interview he gave to the Charlotte Business Journal, a sister newspaper to Cincinnati's Business Courier.
It’s a trying time for all newspapers, especially daily newspapers and especially The Cincinnati Enquirer.
As more and more readers turn to the Internet for free content and information, advertisers that once relied on print publications instead are flocking to Web sites like Craig’s List. Newspaper companies are left desperately trying to devise a new business model to replace the loss of advertising cash.
It’s nearly budget season in Cincinnati again. In a bit of a head start, City Manager Milton Dohoney has unveiled his plan to look into privatizing the city’s parking services.In a memo to city employees, Dohoney claimed leasing could provide a few benefits to the city: “For example, a third party can invest in technology across the entire system more efficiently, can conduct enforcement and bill scofflaws, and can assume maintenance and facility upgrades to the system. ... Further, leasing the system could allow the City government to focus current staff on other services, and provide a pool of funding that could be paid immediately to support neighborhood investment among other priorities.”
Dohoney also wrote he had met with American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) workers that would be affected by the change. He assured any new parking operator would have to interview AFSCME parking workers for jobs.
Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld responded to the proposal critically in a statement: “I’ll await more details, but it seems penny-wise and pound-foolish to forgo a steady revenue stream for a lump-sum payment. Cincinnati needs a structurally balanced budget, and can’t keep relying on one-time sources. Places like Chicago and Indianapolis have seen their parking rates more than double following privatization — that’s a bad deal for citizens, and something we don’t need while were experiencing an urban renaissance.”
Some have cited the experience in Chicago as a failure of privatization. When New York City moved to privatize its parking meters, Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone criticized New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg for his plan: “These deals involve a sitting executive selling off a valuable piece of city property at a steep discount to private financial interests (often, to friends or campaign contributors), in order to solve a current cash flow problem that, surprise, surprise, will still be there the year after you finish spending the proceeds of your sale.”
But New York City’s plan for privatized parking meters kept pricing in public
hands. It’s possible Cincinnati could take a similar approach and keep meter rates at the same level.
The full budget proposal typically comes out in late November. Mayor Mark Mallory and City Council will have to approve the proposal.
“The First Energy Family has contributed more than $44,000.00 into re-election campaigns for Justices Cupp and O’Donnell this year alone,” O’Neill, a Democrat who is running for the Ohio Supreme Court, wrote. “It is simply wrong for them to continue sitting on First Energy cases.”
The Ohio Supreme Court, which has seven justices decide
the state’s top judicial cases, is currently handling a case
involving FirstEnergy, an energy company based in Akron. More than
300,000 customers are suing the company over alleged fraud. The 11th
District Court of Appeals previously ruled against FirstEnergy, and the case was appealed to the Ohio Supreme Court.
The lawsuit is the fifth Ohio Supreme Court case involving FirstEnergy this year.
O’Neill pointed out the lawsuit “could easily be a billion dollar case” before writing, “And the public has a right to know that the ruling was not purchased by one side or another.”
Ohio Sen. Mike Skindell, a Democrat who is also running for the Ohio Supreme Court, endorsed O’Neill’s letter. In the past, he also criticized Cupp and O’Donnell for potential conflicts of interest.
The offices of Cupp and O'Donnell did not immediately respond to CityBeat's requests for comment on the letter. This story will be updated if responses become available.
UPDATE OCT. 4, 4:12 P.M.: Mark Weaver, spokesperson for Cupp, responded: “Mr. O'Neill previously raised this argument with disciplinary authorities by filing a complaint. It was reviewed by disciplinary authorities, and they unanimously dismissed it as having no merit.”
It took awhile due to some miscommunication about police terminology, but CityBeat managed to get a copy of the incident report that Cincinnati City Councilman Jeff Berding filed late last month against a one-time political ally.
Berding filed a report with Cincinnati Police Officer Jay D. Barnes on Jan. 27, the same day that Berding announced his impending resignation from City Council.
(UPDATE AT BOTTOM)
Managers at The Cincinnati Enquirer may be encouraging its staff to use Internet social networking sites to lure more readers, but at least one editor at a Gannett sister newspaper has had enough of Twitter and Facebook.
Private prison critics have been proven right once again. Smuggling incidents are on the rise around Lake Erie Correctional Institution, which Ohio sold to the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) in 2011.
In a letter to Gov. John Kasich’s northeast Ohio liaison, Conneaut Councilman Neil LaRusch claimed a rise in contraband smuggling has forced local police to increase security around the CCA facility.
Since the end of 2012, four have been arrested and charged with smuggling. Another four were arrested Monday and police suspect they were in Conneaut for a smuggling job. According to the Star Beacon, the four suspects arrested Monday were only caught due to the increased police presence outside the Lake Erie prison.
LaRusch said Conneaut and its police department are already running tight budgets, and they can’t afford to continue padding prison security. He then asked the state and governor to help out with the situation.
The letter prompted a reaction from the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio (ACLU), which has staunchly opposed prison privatization in the state. In a statement, Mike Brickner, director of communications and public policy for the ACLU, said, “Unfortunately, this is a predictable pattern with private prisons. Promises of lower costs quickly morph into higher crime, increased burdens on local law enforcement, and in the end, a higher bill for taxpayers.”
He added, “This is not an anomaly. It is a predictable pattern. The private prison model is built on profit above all else. These facilities will cut corners and shift responsibility to taxpayers wherever necessary to maximize profits.”
The governor’s office and Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (ODRC) could not be immediately reached for comment. This story will be updated if a response becomes available.
Update (5:00 p.m.): Col. John Born, superintendent of the Ohio State Highway Patrol, responded to the councilman's letter. In his own letter, Born doesn't contradict that there's a rise in drug smuggling, but he gives the issue more context.
Born wrote criminal incidents at the Lake Erie prison have actually decreased. He acknowledges drug smuggling cases went up from four in 2011 to seven in 2012, but he says drug cases have gone down at the prison since 2010.
He also claims seven other state prisons have seen a greater rise in drug smuggling. Born frames the issue in a national context: “Unfortunately, despite best efforts, the national problem of illegal drug usage and drug trafficking continues to plague our nation.”
Regarding state assistance, Born wrote the Ohio State Highway Patrol does not have the authority to strengthen security in order to directly prevent drug smuggling: “It is important to point out the Ohio State Highway Patrol's legal authority and corresponding duties prior to the sale of the prison and after the sale remain largely unchanged. Ohio troopers did not have original jurisdiction on private property off institution grounds while under state operations nor do they today.”
He adds the Ohio State Highway Patrol has already deployed more cruisers at the prison, but he believes local law enforcement are still the best option for responding to incidents.
JoEllen Smith, spokesperson for ODRC, wrote in an email, “DRC will be in communication with the parties involved to ensure any remaining concerns are addressed.”
CityBeat previously covered private prisons in-depth (“Liberty for Sale,” issue of Sept. 19). Within a week of the story going to stands, ODRC Director Gary Mohr said the state would not privatize any more prisons. On the same day of his announcement, Mohr apparently received an audit that found the CCA facility was only meeting 66.7 percent of state standards (“Prison Privatization Blues,” issue of Oct. 10).