COLUMBIA — A mass mailing sent to residents in Columbia urging them to vote against the school district’s upcoming levy has Superintendent Graig Bansek responding with a vengeance to dispel what he calls erroneous information.
But just who sent the material is the real mystery.
Beyond a small message that said “Paid for by Concerned Citizens” there are no other identifying markings on the postcard that would let residents know who is leading the opposition effort.
“I’m not against the residents speaking out if they speak out with the correct facts,” Bansek said. “I am against those who try to use scare tactics and those who try to skew information that is misleading to those who may be on the fence in how they plan to vote. I want people to have their own opinions based on fact and vote. How they vote is up to them.”
The cover of the anonymous mailing reads, “Important Information on Issue 29.” On the reverse side, the mailing lists several reasons why voters should be against the levy, including a “history of bad decisions” by the board, the decision to close the old Copopa building and build on to the existing middle school — which has been done and was funded through a passed local bond issue — and the district disseminating incorrect information about its effective millage of 20.65 mills instead of 37.58 mills.
“Perhaps a state takeover would be the best solution,” the mailing said. “A state takeover would cause the firing of the superintendent and treasurer, the two most responsible for these most recent problems along with the removal of the school board, who approved the bad decisions – a house cleaning. The children don’t suffer when a state takeover happens. The students still get what the state mandates. Didn’t the Strongsville strike teach us anything?”
Bansek provided The Chronicle-Telegram in September with literature with the lower millage when discussing the levy and called hours later to say he had made a mistake before the figure went into print.
“We have been truthful when asked questions and when we didn’t know the answers we got them,” he said. “When we made mistakes, we owned up to them and quickly told people we were wrong.”
Bansek said he learned of the mailing Thursday through angry phone calls from residents and employees who live in the district. Several even came to his office wanting to know more information about the group and clarification on some of the claims, including one indicating that Bansek and the treasurer voted to give themselves raises after voters approved the bond issue that funded the Copopa addition and middle school renovation.
“The sense that I’m getting from people I have talked to is they are very angry and they believe this mailing is working against what the Concerned Citizens group is trying to do,” he said. “I’m not surprised we have a group opposed to our levy. We always have a small group that is against not just our levies, but every levy in the township, county and state. But if they want to inform voters they should do so with correct information. Just call my office or the treasurer and request anything you want to see.”
Thursday night, Bansek and Treasurer Patricia Weber sent out a cosigned mass email to staff members, residents signed up for electronic newsletters and members of the school board with a rebuttal to many of the statements in the mailing including how neither have taken raises in two years and by law cannot arbitrarily vote to give themselves raises outside their negotiated employment contracts.
“We will investigate where and who might have sent this erroneous mailing out to our residents,” Bansek wrote. “We have also been in contact with our legal department about taking civil action.”
Bansek said Columbia has cut more than $3 million in the past four years and the district has been honest about its need for more revenue from voters since 2010. If Issue 29 fails, the district will have to cut an additional $617,000 from its budget to stave off a deficit and possible state takeover.
“It is very unfortunate that five days prior to the election, we have to deal with inaccurate information being distributed,” Bansek said.
Whoever runs the Concerned Citizens group, their identity is not known to the Lorain County Board of Elections.
Director Paul Adams said he is now aware of such a group, but if two or more people are working together to disseminate information pertaining to an election issue they are required by law to fill out paperwork declaring the committee with the county office.
“An individual person who wants to spend a nominal amount of money to put up a sign or other small thing to show their support or opposition does not need to do that, but once you start talking about two or more people working together to influence an election, the law is very clear,” Adams said.
Adams said such anonymous mailings are unusual, but when they do spring up it’s usually during elections with local issues. But the difficulty in finding out the source of the information means it’s not always easy to file a complaint with the state election commission.
“But anyone can do that,” he said. “Sometimes residents may have first-hand information that we do not as to who violated election law and they can file a complaint on their own.”