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.
It’s no secret that Cintas Corp. CEO Scott Farmer showers part of his wealth on Republican political candidates. Over the years, he has thrown money at George W. Bush, Rob Portman and Steve Chabot. This year, he has given $52,500 to the Mitt Romney campaign. His wife Mary has ponied up $22,500.
But votes, not money, win elections, and the Farmers’ two meager votes don’t amount to much. So what better way to help the Romney effort than to muster the votes of the Cintas-employed masses, as Scott Farmer did in an Oct. 19 letter e-mailed to his 30,000 or so workers, or “partners” as he likes to call them.
Farmer, the son of Cintas founder Richard Farmer, takes issue with Obamacare, the “potential of government to increase current tax rates” and what he considers business-impeding “over-regulation” by federal agencies. All three are straight from the Romney playbook. Farmer, though, insists that the company doesn’t “endorse one candidate over another.” Cintas spokeswoman Heather Maley said the letter was sent to help employees “make an informed decision.”
“In today’s political climate, the issues can certainly be confusing and even overwhelming,” Maley said in a statement. “We believe our partners want to be informed about issues that affect our company and are interested to know where the company stands on these issues.”
One would think that after Cintas’ shabby treatment at the hands of the Bush administration, Farmer would welcome a second Obama term. In 2008, Cintas agreed to pay a $2.8 million fine to settle federal Occupational Safety & Health Administration charges that it was willfully negligent in the death of a Cintas worker who fell into an industrial dryer while clearing a tangle of wet laundry at a company plant in Tulsa, Okla. In 2005, Cintas had to fend off U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission claims that it was biased against women in filling sales jobs. The claims were dismissed in court. And in 2004, the Inspector General for the U.S. Postal Service investigated whether Cintas tacked millions of dollars in “environmental fees” on uniforms, towels and mats it cleaned for the postal service under a 10-year, $200 million contract. Cintas halted the practice.
One person who doesn’t buy into Cintas’ professed ambivalence about its workers’ voting choices is Caleb Faux, executive director of the Hamilton County Democratic Party. Cintas is based in Mason, and many of its workers live and vote in Hamilton County. He sees the Farmer letter as a brazen reminder to workers of the source of their livelihood.
“I think that it’s disgraceful that any employer would use the power implicit in the employer-employee relationship to coerce people while they are making their voting decisions,” Faux said.
A group of eight former employees from The Cincinnati Enquirer filed an amended lawsuit Oct. 19 accusing the Gannett-owned newspaper of age discrimination. The lawsuit, which was originally filed by Joseph Fenton and Catherine Reutter in 2011, was amended on Oct. 19 to include six more plaintiffs.
The origins of the complaint, which also alleges intentional infliction of emotional distress, began
when Fenton was allegedly told he was performing poorly at The Enquirer.
On November 2010, Fenton was “suddenly informed” by his supervisor,
Julie Engebrecht, that his performance was unsatisfactory. This was
despite Engebrecht allegedly acknowledging that Fenton was a “great
editor” in the same conversation.
From that point, Fenton allegedly tried to smooth problems
over. Working through human resources, Fenton arranged weekly meetings
with Engebrecht to gather feedback and improve his work, according to
the lawsuit. At the end of every meeting, Fenton and Engebrecht
allegedly worked out goals and Fenton would finish the meetings by asking, “Are we
good?” Allegedly, Engebrecht replied by assuring Fenton “things were in
Despite the meetings, Fenton was fired on Feb. 18, 2011. He was 57, and he had worked for Gannett (Correction: Previously said The Enquirer) for 14 years, according to the lawsuit. The complaint also says Fenton had no previous record of discipline, but Engebrecht had allegedly referred to Fenton as a “dinosaur” and “curmudgeon.”
When he was terminated, at least seven other individuals — all “near or over the age of 50” — at The Enquirer were laid off as well, according to the lawsuit. Reutter, a co-filer of the lawsuit, was among those terminated. Three of the employees terminated worked for the online department, and they were allegedly replaced by “an employee in his 20s who was hired in January 2011.”
This is all despite Fenton having a history of “high-quality work” at The Enquirer,
according to the complaint: “Two (of his) projects were nominated for
the Pulitzer Prize. Upon information and belief, these (two) projects
were the only (two) nominated for the Pulitzer Prize from The Cincinnati Enquirer
during Fenton’s tenure there.” Fenton also directed projects that won
Best of Gannett awards in 2006 and 2008 in a competition with the
company’s 83 other U.S. newspapers, according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit goes on to make similar claims for the other former employees involved in the lawsuit. They were all 45 years old or older when terminated, and most claim younger, less qualified employees replaced them.
However, in the factual allegations for Reutter, it’s explained a 49-year-old replaced some of the employees. The lawsuit notes the employee is younger than Reutter, but that employee is actually four years older than the youngest plaintiff was when terminated.
The complaint claims Reutter was told in her exit interview “seniority was a factor in the choice of who was terminated.”
Two bills discussed today at a hearing of the Ohio House of Representatives' Judiciary Committee would, if passed, offer greater protections to victims of domestic violence and extend them more legal rights to protect their employment, housing and financial livelihood.
Those bills will join H.B. 243 and H.B. 160, which are still awaiting hearings before the judiciary committee and would, respectively, require individuals served with temporary protection orders to surrender their firearms and offer legal protection to the pets of domestic violence victims — often cited as a reason victims have difficulty leaving a violent situation.
Most significant are the changes that would be implemented by H.B. 297, first introduced to the Ohio House in October by Reps. Ann Gonzales (R-Westerville) and Denise Driehaus (D-Cincinnati). The bill outlines new legal protections for domestic violence victims who need to terminate a rental agreement or take unpaid leave at work in order to deal with domestic violence incidences.
Under the bill, victims of domestic violence would be legally protected against termination at work and have the ability to dissolve a rental lease if the tenant has been a victim of domestic violence. The bill would also prohibit landlords from kicking out tenants because they've been victims of domestic violence at the residence and requires them to comply with requests to change locks when a tenant has been a victim of stalking or menacing.
H.B. 309, also introduced in October, by Reps. Dorothy Pelanda (R-Marysville) and Nickie Antonio (D-Lakewood), would dissolve any charges related to modifications made to a domestic violence, anti-stalking or other type of protection order or consent agreement
In August, CityBeat spoke with domestic violence victim Andrea Metil, who talked about her personal experiences with legal trip-ups that made protecting herself from her attacker difficult. Metil called for stronger legislation to protect victims of domestic violence.
This is the first hearing for both of the bills.
State Sen. Tim Schaffer (R-Lancaster) is introducing legislation Thursday that would attach mandatory drug testing to welfare benefits, even though similar policies have proven to be costly with little gain in other states.
“It is time that we recognize that many families are trying to survive in drug-induced poverty, and we have an obligation to make sure taxpayer money is not being used to support drug dealers,” Schaffer told The Columbus Dispatch. “We can no longer turn a blind eye to this problem.”
Under the proposal, welfare recipients in three counties would be required to take a drug test if they admit in a questionnaire to using drugs in the past six months. Children, who make up a bulk of welfare recipients, would be exempt. (In June, 24,443 adults and 105,822 children obtained welfare benefits in Ohio, according to data from the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services.)
The policy, which was originally touted as a way to reduce welfare costs, has backfired in many states. That’s why the supporting line is now about preventing dollars from going to drug dealers instead of cost savings.
Deseret News reports the latest problems in Utah: “Utah has spent more than $30,000 to screen welfare applicants for drug use since a new law went into effect a year ago, but only 12 people have tested positive, state figures show.”
When Ohio legislators in 2012 proposed a drug testing requirement for welfare benefits, CityBeat reported another failure in Florida originally covered by The Miami Herald: In that state, the program had a net loss of $45,780 after it reimbursed falsely accused welfare recipients for their drug tests. Only 108 people out of the 4,086 accused, or 2.9 percent, tested positive, and most tested positive for marijuana.
Utah and Florida are among eight states that have enacted drug testing requirements for welfare recipients since 2011, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
A court placed an injunction on the Florida program after the American Civil Liberties Union sued on September 2011. That injunction was upheld on Feb. 26 by the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta, which concluded, “The simple fact of seeking public assistance does not deprive a TANF (welfare) applicant of the same constitutional protection from unreasonable searches that all other citizens enjoy.”
Given that Schaffer’s bill would require drug testing only after information is solicited through questionnaires, it’s unclear whether legal challenges like the one in Florida would be successful in Ohio.
“The Jim Henson Company has celebrated and embraced diversity and inclusiveness for over fifty years and we have notified Chick-Fil-A that we do not wish to partner with them on any future endeavors,” the company said in the statement.
The statement went on to announce the company, under the order of CEO Lisa Henson, will be donating payments received from Chick-Fil-A to the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), one of the biggest pro-gay-rights groups in the country.
The news comes after a week of scrutiny following company president Dan Cathy’s declaration that he is against gay marriage. Politicians piled on to the news. Same-sex marriage opponents praised the company for its stance, while prominent Democrats and Republicans criticized Chick-Fil-A for the position.
The company has long held an anti-gay stance. It has publicly supported and funded anti-gay groups, and the company was reported to be co-sponsoring a marriage conference with the anti-gay group Pennsylvania Family Institute last year.
Chick-Fil-A has also been known for promoting fundamentalist Christian values. Founder Samuel Truett Cathy has identified himself as a staunch Christian, and the chain’s restaurants close on Sundays to respect Christian values. Even the company’s corporate purpose statement invokes religion: “To glorify God by being a faithful steward of all that is entrusted to us."
The company has also been criticized for religious discrimination in the past. In 2002, a former Muslim employee sued the company because he claimed he was fired for not participating in a group prayer to Jesus Christ. The lawsuit was settled out of court for an undisclosed amount.
The City of Cincinnati today released the final draft for its plan to “re-establish (Cincinnati) as a model of a thriving urban city.” Plan Cincinnati, which will be taken up in a public hearing on Aug. 30 at 6 p.m., is the first master plan for Cincinnati since 1980.
The primary goal behind the plan is to transition the city away from a model that emphasizes suburban living back to a more urban model. The plan’s report justifies the shift by attributing it to a new societal need.
“Dissatisfied, American society is now beginning to reverse the trend (of suburban living) with the hope of returning to an environment that is more economically and environmentally sustainable, less dependent on the automobile, closer in scale to human form, and ultimately, truly more livable,” the report says.
The plan will make this transition with six guiding principles: Provide more transportation choices, promote equitable, affordable housing, enhance economic competitiveness, support existing communities, coordinate and leverage federal policies and investment, and value communities and neighborhoods.
The vague principles are outlined in greater detail in the 228-page report, which can be read in full here.
One of the key parts of the plan is its expansion of options for non-automotive travel. The plan promises to focus more work on bicycle paths, support a Bicycle and Pedestrian Program and build links between bicycle systems to allow more cycling through the city. The city will also “design and construct the Ohio River Bike Trail through Cincinnati” and make the city safer for cyclists by making roads smoother and cleaner.
The plan also encourages other transportation programs. Establishing better coordination with Metro buses, building intercity rail systems and integrating the new streetcar into a greater transportation model are a few of the many suggestions in the plan. With these systems, the plan hopes to “facilitate economic development opportunities.”
Beyond transportation, the plan also seeks to establish environmentally friendly programs. Some of the suggestions are developing a green construction incentive program, implementing smart grid networks and reforming the LEED tax abatement program to include additional energy efficient rating systems.
However, the plan is missing one important detail: cost. The report says Plan Cincinnati will be reviewed every year using the new Priority-Driven Budgeting process, but no estimates for cost are currently available. Katherine Keough-Jurs, senior city planner, explained why in an email: “That is not something that we provide. We have found over the years that providing cost estimates in long-range plans is problematic and the estimates can be misleading. Also, some of the Action Steps listed are not necessarily things that would have a monetary cost associated.”
Some members of city council agreed that the city needs to take a hard look at the way it inspects projects done with taxpayer money, but they took no action during a special joint committee meeting Thursday to discuss allegations that workers were being underpaid at the University Square development in Clifton.
Council members Laure Quinlivan, Cecil Thomas and Wendell Young presented a video investigation they conducted, which included interviews with workers on the project who claim they were being taken advantage of by the University Square developers.
Under Ohio and Cincinnati law, workers on projects funded by taxpayers must be paid a so-called “prevailing wage” (the same as a unionized worker) and be given benefits.
In Cincinnati, that wage is $23.17 an hour for the carpentry work done by the workers interviewed for the video.
The workers in the video claimed they were paid $500 for working a 60-hour week.
“Five-hundred dollars a week to me when you don’t have a job, that’s a lot,” said Garrick Foxx, a construction worker on the project.
“But actually when you average it out, it’s not. Like to the hour-wise it’s probably like 9-something, so like I could actually make that working at McDonalds.”
The University Square developer — a collaboration between Towne Properties and Al. Neyer, Inc. — is building a complex with a parking garage, residential units and retail space.
The City of Cincinnati has $21 million invested in the parking garage. The State of Ohio recently ruled that the prevailing wage provisions apply only workers constructing the garage that the city has money invested in.
Arn Bortz with Towne Properties said the controversy was ginned up by unions and it hasn’t been proven that workers are being underpaid.
“All of this was started by the unions themselves because they became very unhappy when the State of Ohio said a sizeable portion of our project was not subject to prevailing wage,” Bortz said. “They tried then to discredit and intimidate anyone who is on the other side of the table.”
Bortz said he agreed to pay a prevailing wage even to workers who worked on parts of the project not subject to the law. He said he cuts a check to the subcontractors based on that agreement.
“Whether any of those subcontractors might have been unfair to the workers, we do not know,” Bortz said. “If they were, they should be made to be fair.”
Deputy City Solicitor Aaron Herzig said if the contract required a particular wage be paid and it wasn’t, the city can bring a breach of contract action against the developers. But to start an investigation, a complaint must first be made.
The council members asked that their investigation be considered a formal complaint.