Ohio state school board member who lobbied resigns

AP Statehouse Correspondent

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - A member of Ohio's state school board resigned Monday after questions arose over his work as a lobbyist. He cited an ethics opinion suggesting the arrangement was illegal.

Bryan Williams, a former Republican state lawmaker from the Akron area, said in an email to board President Debe Terhar that recent media reports drew his attention to an Ohio Ethics Commission opinion saying elected members of state boards shouldn't be registered lobbyists.

"Adherence to Ohio ethics laws and advisory opinions of the commission charged with interpreting state ethics laws is of the utmost importance to me," he wrote.

Williams was one of four members of the 19-member panel identified in a November report by the Akron Beacon Journal as having ties to businesses with a stake in education funding. One other member, C. Todd Jones, is a registered lobbyist. The others are the spouse of a lobbyist and a college president.

A message seeking comment from Williams was not immediately returned.

Williams is a lobbyist for the Associated Builders and Contractors of Ohio, a group of non-union contractors. According to state lobbying records, he had pushed recently for a bill establishing a state apprenticeship program open to contractors that calls for public school districts to pay the related costs. The bill, introduced in May, has not yet cleared the Legislature.

Republican Gov. John Kasich had appointed Williams to a vacant elected spot on the state board in 2011. The ethics conflict arose when he successfully ran this year to keep the seat, becoming elected rather than appointed.

Jones said the opinion doesn't apply to him, as an appointed board member. He said he also doesn't believe his work for the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of Ohio actually constitutes lobbying. The Ethics Commission has received a request to review Jones' situation.

"My behavior doesn't fit," he said. "I'm not doing anything that acts in conflict."

With questions swirling, Jones said he intends to amend his legislative ethics forms to remove an incidence of lobbying that he had previously listed. He said he overreports such activity "out of an abundance of caution," but does not believe he has any conflicts of interest when it comes to his state board work.

Terhar said she sees no reason for Jones to follow Williams' lead and leave the board.

"It doesn't appear to be the same thing at all," she said.

Jones chairs the board's powerful Achievement Committee, which is embroiled in a disagreement over revisions to Ohio's standards for identifying and educating gifted students.

The standards will dictate how more than $85 million in state gifted funding is allocated. That includes whether some of it goes to college-level programs, such as post-secondary and dual enrollment options offered by member institutions in Jones' association, among others. Jones said he represents the association, not the individual institutions, and the association doesn't have any contractual interests with the state.

Terhar said she has pulled discussion of the standards from the agenda of a school board meeting scheduled for Tuesday. She said she wants to sort out the effects of a governor's line-item veto of gifted funding mandates contained in the budget. She said she has contacted Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine's office to consult with the board.

Ohio House Finance Committee Chairman Ron Amstutz wrote a letter to Terhar in October raising concerns over the draft rules, saying the Legislature intended the money in the budget to go to identifying gifted students and paying gifted coordinators and intervention specialists.

"We are relying on the State Board of Education to ensure that all administrative rules, procedures and policies demonstrate both accountability and transparency and reflect the legislative intent that gifted students are afforded quality education opportunities through the state," he wrote.

Terhar said she'd like the disagreement resolved as soon as possible.

"We really do need to get this into the process, and get these rules ready for people so that districts know what they have to do. That's our job," she said. "But I can't do that absent the facts, and each side has their 'facts' and we have to sort through those. There's also a lot of emotion that goes with this issue, and we have to sort through that, too."

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