Kettering School Board Members Failed In Their Responsibility To Be Guardians Of “Local Control”

In response to my post, I’m Debating: Should I File a Complaint With Election Commission Against Kettering’s School Superintendent?, Eric and Rick made comments. Eric wrote, “It’s not too late to decide that bigger problems demand your attention and simply drop the whole issue. I personally would recommend not burning bridges with the school district …” Eric seems to be saying: “This doesn’t amount to much.” But I can’t see it that way.

The issue goes to the heart of our American educational system, described as one of “local control.” The five members of Kettering’s Board of Education at their April 23 meeting made no correction or clarification to Superintendent Robert Mengerink’s comments, showing unified solidarity with his comments about the 6.9 mill renewal levy.

At the board meeting, Mengerink said: “The backdrop (of this report) is a renewal we have on the ballot for May 5. A renewal means no additional taxes. It’s the same amount of money that our taxpayers paid for the last five years, they will continue to pay as long as they approve this renewal. Without it, we would lose close to 8 million from our current budget. And as you can see we have already reduced our cost rather dramatically, to try to keep our cost down for our taxpayers. It is just critical that we pass this levy. And it is a renewal — no additional dollars.”

I thought it funny that although the superintendent knew that the exact amount the levy will raise is $8.2 million — he said “close to $8 million.” Everyone who didn’t know otherwise would think that when Dr. Mengerink says “close to $8 million,” he means, something less that $8 million. Why minimize the impact that this levy might have on the district? I think Dr. Mengerink’s whole approach was to make the renewal seem as palatable as possible to taxpayers and his “close to $8 million” tax bill sounds better than $8.2 million tax bill. It is interesting that his “close to $8 million” comment corresponds in spirit with careful worded statement Dr. Mengerink made during the board meeting about the renewal levy — misleading, but technically correct.

No board member attempted to clarify the superintendent’s words. Three members are up for reelection this November to a new four year term. Frank Maus spoke passionately, urging a “Yes” vote. Julie Ann Gilmore gave a special report telling all the wonderful things happening in the district.  George H. Bayless expressed enthusiastic support about the high school production of “Guys and Dolls.” But no board member made a peep to explain the superintendent’s remarks.

Board members, of course, had all agreed to promote the general campaign strategy and the slogan shown on the yard signs, “ZERO Increase In Taxes.” But, any board member serious about fulfilling his or her responsibility to the public to be guardians of “local control,” would never have agreed to such an antidemocratic strategy. By their participation in this levy campaign of misinformation and vote suppression, Maus, Gilmore, and Bayless lost my vote. Maus, Bayless and Gilmore didn’t want to rock the boat, and certainly they didn’t want to “burn any bridges.” Maus and Gilmore are former Kettering teachers and Jim Trent, the board president, is a retired Kettering superintendent. The “Trent Arena” is named for him. Kettering Board members have melded into the school bureaucracy in an honored role. They’ve forgotten their responsibility to represent and inform the public. They evidently see the role of board members to be that of school supporters, cheerleaders, team players. They obviously don’t see their role as guardians of “local control.”

Any board member who would have exercised his or her responsibility to represent and educate the public would have spoken up, something like: “When Dr. Mengerink says, ‘A renewal means no additional taxes,’ he means that this levy will generate the same amount of revenue, $8.2 million, each year, for the next five years. Right now that $8.2 million is generated through an effective rate of 6.16 mills. Agreeing to a renewal levy means that this effective rate, over the next five years, may increase from the current rate of 6.16 mills to 6.9 mills, where it started five years ago. At maximum, this would be a 12% increase. Unfortunately, the total tax base in Kettering is shrinking. In response to this shrinking tax base, the effective tax rate needed to raise this $8.2 million must increase. Last year, the effective rate for this levy was 6.13 mills, this year it is 6.16 mills. This amounts to an increase of 3 cents for every $1000 of taxed property. Next year there will be another small increase.” But, no school board member spoke up.

Eric continues his comment above, “It is far more important to American democracy that the work of Kettering Foundation be advanced in public schools.” “Local Control” of schools is a fundamental principle of American democracy.  David Matthews of The Kettering Foundation says “democracy is essential to education.” One reason our schools are deficient is because our democracy is deficient. In order to have the kind of schools in which the Kettering Foundation can be successful, you need to have vital democracy first. I’m all for conducting school programs, but the democracy we need is grassroots participation by informed taxpayers and voters.

In the “Blue Ribbon Report,” the school publication sent to Kettering households, Dr. Mengerink is quoted as saying, “There will be absolutely no increase in taxes as a result of this Renewal Issue.” Absolutely — “having no exception.” He is quoted, “This is a renewal issue with no tax increase for property owners.” But the effective tax rate has already increased from last year to this year by 3 cents per $1000 and the superintendent knows that this effective rate will increase next year as well. I see no wiggle room. Dr. Mengerink made false statements designed to promote the adoption of the renewal levy. Dr. Mengerink, the board members, and many other people in on the game knew these statements to be false. The Ohio code prohibits the promulgation of false statements for the purpose of influencing a ballot’s outcome. Dr. Mengerink, as I see it, clearly went over the line and for the sake of the principle of “local control,” he and the school board deserve rebuke. This whole issue needs to be discussed as part of the coming board election.

Rick wrote, “As a said in another post, I believe most Americans are corrupt, and that includes those who seek levies to support government schools.” Rick’s idea that individuals are generally corrupt or generally corruptible is a view shared by authors of constitutions for democratic societies. Because every human is prone to corruption, constitutional democracy has built into its DNA a system of checks and balances. It has a bill of rights to protect the individual from mob rule. It has a system of elections where representatives of the people must stand and defend their actions. It has a process to make sure elections are fair. But none of this means much, if the system is not used, if, instead of a system checks and balances you have a system of cliques, secrecy, vote suppression, and misinformation.

If there is any place on the planet where democracy should be working, it is in Kettering, Ohio.  This is an opportunity to sow the seeds of democracy.  You can’t get much more grassroots than at the level of the local school board.  It is my intention to file a complaint.

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15 Responses to Kettering School Board Members Failed In Their Responsibility To Be Guardians Of “Local Control”

  1. Eric says:

    It’s the same amount of money that our taxpayers paid for the last five years

    Is that statement collective or individual? The levy advocates simply weren’t thinking of the valuation shift from commercial to residential property. I don’t see OEC finding reckless disregard.

    Make this a joint effort to get an advisory opinion of value to levy committees. There’s no point in both burning bridges and losing with OEC. Don’t waste a teachable moment on a quixotic quest.

  2. Eric says:

    In order to have the kind of schools in which the Kettering Foundation can be successful, you need …

    Chaminade Julienne uses National Issues Forum materials and is featured in a video available from Kettering Foundation.

  3. Eric says:

    Unfortunately, the total tax base in Kettering is shrinking.

    Mike, you insist on going where you don’t win. A shrinking tax base doesn’t cause the problem of residents paying more tax dollars. A shifting tax base does–when valuation shifts from commercial/industrial to residential.

  4. Mike Bock says:

    Eric, Thanks for your comments. You write, “The levy advocates simply weren’t thinking of the valuation shift from commercial to residential property.”

    In the past, it has always been accurate to advertise that renewal levies require zero increase in tax, because the pattern has always been that the effective rate for these levies each year decreased. But we are now in a big economic contraction, and a new trend has been established. The effective tax rates are increasing. This is an established fact. Whether the reason for the increase in effective rate is because of a shrinking tax base or a shifting tax base, to me, seems a technical point. The important point is that a contracting economy has established this trend to increase effective tax rate, and everyone expects the economy to continue to contract. You can’t dispute reality.

    This change in effective rates is not happening just in Kettering. Northmont voters just approved a 5 mill renewal levy. Last year the effective rate was 3.30 mills, this year it is 3.33 mills. In Kettering, within the last year the effective tax rate for this 6.9 mill levy changed from 6.13 mills to 6.16 mills. As I said, the superintendent well knows that next year there will also be another increase in the effective rate.

    The part of the code I’m looking at says, “Post, publish, circulate, distribute, or otherwise disseminate, a false statement, either knowing the same to be false or acting with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not, that is designed to promote the adoption or defeat of any ballot proposition or issue.”

    Dr. Mengerink allowed the “Blue Ribbon Report,” an official publication that as superintendent he is responsible for, to quote him as saying, in his official position as Superintendent of Kettering Schools, “absolutely no increase in taxes.” “Absolutely” is a powerful word. The whole point of using a word like “absolutely” is to indicate that there is no wiggle room, there is no hedge, there can be no misunderstanding. Dr. Mengerink in his comments in the Blue Ribbon Report went too far. This sense of indicating “absolutely” no increase in taxes is echoed in the advertisement signs that said, “ZERO Increase In Taxes,” but “ZERO Increase” has more wiggle room than “Absolutely.” I think I do not need to bring up the levy committee at all, nor the signs. I think Mengerink’s statements in the Blue Ribbon Report are sufficient to meet the standard set in the Ohio Code. I think focusing the complaint on one person, the superintendent, may be the best strategy.

    Dr. Mengerink published “a false statement, knowing the same to be false … designed to promote the adoption of a ballot issue.” I don’t think it’s necessary to deal with the term “reckless disregard.” Everyone knows that the school board gave tacit and outright approval of Mengerink’s statements — as evidenced in the board meeting cited above — so, a public rebuke to Mengerink is a rebuke to the whole board. I’m sure the board members are all well meaning good people who have devoted a lot of their time and energy dedicated to Kettering Schools, but I feel that in their enthusiasm to be school supporters they’ve lost track of their first responsibility to represent the public.

    In the board meeting, I refer to above, Dr. Mengerink gave an elaborate power point presentation. But, obviously, the point of his presentation was to persuade. He says, “And as you can see we have already reduced our cost rather dramatically, to try to keep our cost down for our taxpayers.” Really? You’ve got to wonder. Seeing his methods for persuading voters to approve the 6.9 mill levy, there is a shadow over everything he says.

  5. nightfly says:

    I think you should go forward with your complaint, Mike. Despite all the naysayers and poo-pooers, this IS an important issue. You may be very unpopular for rocking the boat, making waves and burning bridges, but someone needs to knock these people off their comfortable laurels and hold them accountable. Kudos for your courage in the face of substantial opposition. Just remember these political cliques operate more like a mini-mafia than a den of democracy. They may be fitting you for a pair of concrete galoshes as we speak!

  6. Mike Bock says:

    Nightfly, thanks for the encouragement. The superintendent and school board convinced themselves, evidently, that passage of this renewal levy was so important that, for the sake of finding sufficient funding for Kettering Schools, it would be OK to use antidemocratic methods to pass the renewal levy. I don’t see the pro-levy workers as a mini-mafia, as you suggest — just well meaning people who convinced themselves that an antidemocratic strategy was justified. I do intend to go forward with the complaint, because I feel that the superintendent, along with the school board and levy committee, went way overboard in their enthusiasm to pass this renewal levy and in their enthusiasm they violated Ohio law. In order for our system to work, in order for democracy to have a chance, the laws on the books — concerning conducting fair elections — need to be enforced.

    The key issue, that needs to be addressed, is not the issue of providing sufficient finances for our schools. The key issue is the state of democracy here in Kettering. Our public school system is built around the principle of “local control.” The principle of “local control” is meaningless unless our democracy has sufficient vitality. Laws protecting our democracy have no efficacy unless they are enforced and in order for these laws to be enforced, some voter must make a formal complaint. I am sort of amazed that, as it turns out, that voter is going to be me. My motivation, in part, is to represent the 501 C(3) organization I have agreed to attempt to vitalize — Grassroots Dayton.

    My motivation for filing this complaint is not the fact that, because of the passage of this renewal levy, I will be required to pay more tax; my motivation comes from my conviction that someone should take a stand for fair elections, someone should take a stand for democracy. I agree with David Matthews of the Kettering Foundation that in order for a community to fulfill the potential of public education, the community must exercise a vigorous democracy. I believe that individuals on the Kettering School Board are individuals of great personal integrity. I imagine they convinced themselves that the “ZERO Increase In Taxes” ad campaign and other antidemocratic strategies employed to pass the renewal levy were OK by, in part, rationalizing that all the other school boards in Ohio seeking an approval of a renewal levy use the same type of ads and same type of antidemocratic strategies. This is a state-wide phenomena, I would bet.

    I’ve agreed to serve as Executive Director of Grassroots Dayton. I see the filing of this complaint a means to help Grassroots Dayton advance its mission: “sowing the seeds of democracy.”

  7. Eric says:

    Laws protecting our democracy have no efficacy unless they are enforced and in order for these laws to be enforced, some voter must make a formal complaint. I am sort of amazed that, as it turns out, that voter is going to be me.

    A number of laws designed to protect the vitality of our democracy go unenforced. Disputing dubious levy language is low on my list. I’ll be sort of amazed if Ohio’s election commission agrees with you, and I still implore you to suggest Kettering’s levy committe ask for an advisory opinion.

  8. Mike Bock says:

    Eric, you write, “I still implore you to suggest Kettering’s levy committee ask for an advisory opinion.”

    I’m inclined to consider seriously your advice, because you’ve established with me a lot of credibility concerning your motives and overall outlook. But, I guess I fail to understand why you believe that the route of, at this point, attempting to work with the levy committee is the best choice. If I had been sufficiently alert, I can see that contacting the levy committee with my concerns would have been a good idea at the start of the levy campaign. But I missed that possibility. Now, such an approach seems too late. It seems to me that the situation calls for someone to make a formal complaint.

  9. Eric says:

    such an approach seems too late

    Then share that opinion with the levy committee (or supt or board members). You aren’t trying to pick a fight, but you believe tactics violated election law. If the levy committe doesn’t ask for an advisory opinion, file the complaint because you feel compelled by your sense of civic responsibility. Don’t feel compelled to name the superintendent–pick the best example of what you feel needs correcting.

    Try to take the position that there is a disagreement and a forum for resolving the disagreement and do your best to make a good civics lesson of it. That means toning down the rhetoric–not “district’s anti-democratic tactics” but “I believe the election commission will see things my way.” (BTW: I doubt they will–so resolve to be a good sport when you lose.)

  10. Mike Bock says:

    Eric, I’ve written a rough draft and I’m still looking it over. I’ll post it when I finish. Hold judgment on your doubts until you read the draft. I’m betting that the election commission will call a hearing — but, if not, it will be interesting to understand their reasoning.

  11. truddick says:

    I continue to wonder at the devotion to old arguments.

    There should not be a Kettering Board of Education. Nor a Dayton Board, nor an Houston-Hardin board. There should be a national board.

    Think not? All of the nations whose students rank ahead of ours on math and language test scores have national education. If they looked at our system of local control they’d wonder how we ever managed to become such a superpower.

    There should not be a school funding system that shrink in recession or that fails to keep pace with inflation. Requiring schools to go to the voters, cap in hand, every few years–as Ohio does–is a waste of public funds, since the public winds up paying for every one of these tax levy votes, pass or fail.

    Our legislators continue to burden us with “do it yourself” government. The responsibility for levying a fair and proper level of taxes is the legislature’s job, not ours. So long as we elect people who refuse to think that tax increases might be proper in some cases, we will continue to limit our ability to keep this society functioning–and we’ll continue to flounder while India, Indonesia and China make inroads.

  12. Mike Bock says:

    Dr. Ruddick, shouldn’t we be concerned about the principle of “local control”? What you are suggesting may work to make the educational system more efficient, but it seemingly would abandon all possibility that grassroots democracy could be made to work to bring about an even greater improvement. Should we abandon the notion of local control of our public school system?

  13. Eric says:

    From OldProf’s posts here and at DDN, he entertains doubts that public school students can be educated to the levels required for effective citizenship. He also chooses to ignore educational practices in parochial schools that promote good citizenship–like NIF in the Classroom.

    While such circumstances might lead some to suggest that public school eductors take a look at what parochial schools are doing, Dr. Ruddick prefers to conclude that the proper role of public education is to train students to cast the right (left?) vote and elect czars to free citizens (nay, voters) from the evils of “do it yourself government.:”

    For a good example of an electorate incompetent to constitute a board of education look to Cleveland, where the school board is appointed. The next step in Dr. Ruddicks scheme is to consolidate schools county-wide so families have nowhere to flee.

  14. Rick says:

    Eric, you are correct, Dr. Ruddick has demonstrated a deep contempt towards parents and the citizenry over many years.

  15. Mike Bock says:

    On “Meet The Press” yesterday, Vice President Joe Biden was asked about comments made by Dick Cheney. Rather than taking the opportunity to attack Cheney, I thought Biden showed some good sense when he said, “I learned a long time ago from a guy named Mike Mansfield, never question another man’s motive. You’ve never once heard me in my entire career question a man’s motive. I think Dick Cheney’s judgment about how to secure America is faulty. I think our judgment is correct. I don’t question his motive.”

    Biden, I thought, showed a valuable point of view that should be encouraged as a means to facilitate and empower meaningful discussions.

    I don’t know Dr. Ruddick personally, but over the last couple of years, I’ve appreciated the fact that he has visited this web-site and has made thoughtful comments. I feel he deserves some defense. Some of Dr. Ruddick’s comments and point of view, in the past, I’ve disagreed with, but I’ve not had reason to believe that Dr. Ruddick has evil motives.

    It hardly seems fair to write, as Eric does, that, “Dr. Ruddick prefers to conclude that the proper role of public education is to train students to cast the right (left?) vote….” Nothing that Dr. Ruddick said in response to this particular post could possible lead one to that judgment. I doubt that Dr. Ruddick would agree with that assessment. And Rick’s comment that, “Dr. Ruddick has demonstrated a deep contempt towards parents,” also seems disconnected from whatever Dr. Ruddick is saying in his comments to this post.

    I think there is an objective issue in this post that is worthwhile to discuss — the issue of “local control.” Dr. Ruddick evidently has a point of view concerning “local control” that is shared by others in the education community. I’d like to better understand the underpinnings of this point of view. I think it is valuable to understand how we each think and evaluate such key concepts. Let me say the obvious — Dr. Ruddick evidently has made some people angry by his previous comments, but, to attack someone on the basis of a history of previous comments, to make speculation concerning a person’s motives, cuts off and squelches discussion — or directs discussion to nonproductive means.

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