The first deadline has come and gone for groups to register with the Athens County Board of Elections if they have spent money advocating for local issues on the November 2018 ballot. With that deadline come and gone, there’s no further clarity on who’s behind an apparently well-funded local campaign to help defeat a bond issue to rebuild and renovate local schools.
Athens County Board of Elections officials on Friday showed The NEWS records of all of the groups that have filed “pre-general” campaign finance reports with their office so far this election cycle. None of them are related to either of the two “No on Issue 3” efforts.
Nobody has come forward to claim responsibility for a series of advertisements, anti-levy yard signs, a website and a Facebook page, among other efforts, that say they were paid for by “Heartland America Inc.” These campaign materials – sometimes attributed to a group called Citizens for A+hens Education and other times to Students for A+hens Education – previously predicted that rents would skyrocket in Athens if Issue 3, a bond issue for the Athens City School District, passed. That, the campaign warned, would mean less money for Ohio University students to spend on “beer” and “pizza,” leading some to speculate that local landlords are behind the group. Now, the group’s website has changed tact, with images of schools being torn down, and rhetoric that questions the necessity of the School District’s facilities master plan. (See related story in this issue on the “Vote No on 3” campaign.)
“There is not one study we are aware of that draws a correlation between tearing down perfectly fine school buildings and a result of improved education,” the webpage reads. “And that is our focus, improved and superior educational environments that allow our kids to excel.”
The NEWS so far has been unable to determine who is behind the group; the group’s Facebook page administrator did not respond to multiple questions sent Friday.
Meanwhile, a separate anti-levy group called “Athens Area Citizens for Common-Sense Solutions” also did not file a pre-general election finance report with the Board of Elections by Thursday’s deadline. Unlike the dark-money “Vote No on 3” campaign, local residents have claimed responsibility for the “Common-Sense Solutions” campaign, which among other things expresses concerns about losing small elementary schools in the district. That group also has made anti-levy yard signs available. Group member Laura Alloway said Sunday that the group had registered with the Board of Elections, but did not spend above a certain threshold before Oct. 17, so it did not have to file a pre-general finance report with the BOE.
Meanwhile, a pro-Issue 3 group called “A Better Chance for Students” did file such a report as of Friday, which has distributed pro-levy signs in recent weeks and maintains a Facebook page.
Debbie Quivey, director of the Athens County Board of Elections, previously stated that these groups needed to register with the local Board of Elections by Oct. 25 if they spent more than $1,000 on local issue campaigning efforts before Oct. 17; if the groups hadn’t spent more than $1,000 before Oct. 17, the forms are due by Dec. 14.
The pro-levy “Better Chance for Students” group’s pre-general election report – filed on Oct. 25 – lists Athens resident Sarah Webb as its treasurer, with a variety of contributors from the area, including ACSD Supt. Tom Gibbs, School Board President Rusty Rittenhouse (and his wife, Emily), and School Board member Kim Goldsberry (and her husband, Stuart). In total, that group has received $4,500 in contributions and spent about $1,936 so far, with the vast majority of that ($1,284) going toward yard signs.
A representative with the Ohio Secretary of State’s Office said that there’s no record of any anti- or pro-Issue 3 groups that have filed with that state office because any such groups would need to file with their local board of elections office. A representative for the Ohio Elections Commission told The NEWS Friday that nobody has filed a complaint so far about any of these groups.
THE FACILITIES MASTER PLAN, approved by the School Board in late March, calls for the construction of two new pre-kindergarten to third-grade school buildings on the current sites of East and Morrison-Gordon elementary schools; a new high school for grades nine to 12 on the site of the current Athens High School building; a complete renovation of The Plains Elementary School, which will house grades four through six, that will include the current building and a significant addition; and renovation of the Athens Middle School, which will house seventh and eighth grades.
The district has not yet decided what to do with the West Elementary School building, though the building will not be used as a school, Supt. Tom Gibbs has stated. The “Citizens for Ahens (or A+hens) Education” anti-levy group claims on its website claims that “all of this” (referring to the School District’s master plan) “will result in the permanent closure and destruction of West Elementary School.”