When Stan Heffner hurriedly resigned just two days after being found in violation of Ohio Ethics Laws, the State Board of Education was left scrambling to find someone to take control of the Ohio Department of Education on a short-term basis.  Michael Sawyers, an Assistant Superintendent at ODE was tagged to fill that role.  Sawyers came to ODE when Deb Delisle was State Superintendent to oversee the implementation of Race to the Top, the Obama administration’s massive federally funded education initiative that can be credited with instituting most of the education reforms we are currently seeing rolled out in Ohio’s schools.

At 43, Sawyers is relatively young to be leading a state’s department of education. A licensed Spanish teacher (he holds an active Spanish license to this day), Sawyers served as an assistant principal, principal, curriculum director, and local superintendent before moving over to ODE.  Let us also be clear that he’s not actually applied nor even been hired as state superintendent — he has simply agreed to fill Ohio’s need to have someone acting in ODE’s top leadership role.  We do not even know that he wants the job.

This key distinction was lost on the Columbus Dispatch as they attacked Sawyers in their version of a “welcome” article for this career public educator by exaggerating a financial misstep from 2010.  Joe Vardon’s opening paragraph uses the leading word “caught” to imply that Sawyers was trying to get away with something wrong, an implication that shows up nowhere when reconstructing the history of this story:

The man who will at least temporarily succeed outgoing state Superintendent Stan Heffner was caught using a school district credit card for personal expenses when he was superintendent of Perry Local Schools in Lake County in 2010.

And then, near the end of Vardon’s narrative, he unnecessarily connects this minor incident by Sawyers to the ethics charges that led to Heffner’s disgraceful exit, placing the following paragraph between two quotes about Sawyers:

Ohio Board of Education President Debe Terhar said she was made aware of the incident last week shortly after Inspector General Randy Meyer released results of a yearlong probe showing that Heffner had lobbied Ohio lawmakers in 2011 on legislation likely to benefit a standardized-testing company with which he had accepted a job. Heffner was the state’s interim superintendent at the time and was within days of leaving to join Educational Testing Service in Texas when he reversed course and accepted a permanent role as Ohio’s superintendent. Meyer’s report also showed that Heffner had his assistants do personal work pertaining to his new job with the testing service on state time. Heffner’s resignation takes effect tomorrow.

The true story is that Sawyers, as Superintendent of the Perry Local School District, used the district credit card to make purchases totaling $858.19 and also issued gift cards for meals to students and chaperones on a band trip out-of-state and failed to properly track the spending on those cards.

The Dispatch alluded to Sawyers’ errors being as despicable as the ethics violations that ousted Heffner, seeming to imply that Sawyers should also be shown the door. But they couldn’t be more wrong.

In Sawyer’s case the Auditor of State’s findings revealed that the Perry Local School Board might also have some culpability for unclear guidelines surrounding spending.  It also confirms, as does a subsequent Board Resolution, that Sawyers willingly repaid the amount that he was found to have improperly spent.

Here is the key finding from the Ohio Auditor’s report (6/30/2010; underline added for emphasis):

Finding No. 2010-2 Significant Deficiency – Credit Card Purchases

Statement of Condition/Criteria
During the year, the District purchased flowers for sick or deceased employees and/or family members of employees. These purchases were approved by the Board and were made at the discretion of the Superintendent. Currently, the District does not have a formal policy on flower purchases.

Also during the year, the District had a few food purchases on the Superintendent’s credit card without a stated purpose. Sufficient documentation was not available to determine if the purchases were for District or non-District purchases.

In addition, in the past the Superintendent of the District purchased gift cards that were distributed to the students for their use while on a band trip. The coordinator of the trip or the Superintendent did not account for the number or dollar amount of these gift cards prior to their distribution.

Without District policy guidelines addressing specific credit card purchases, including support and approval of such purchases, the District has incurred unallowable expenses.

We recommend that the District establish and maintain a written policy on flower purchases to ensure that all purchases are within District guidelines. The Board should review the parameters of the Superintendent’s discretion on purchases for reasonableness. In addition, we recommend that documentation supporting purchases state if they are for District or non-District purposes.  Only District related purchases are allowable District expenses. We also recommend that the District avoid the use of gift cards but when use is necessary all gift cards be accounted for prior to distribution, including type, quantity, dollar amount, and purpose. This will increase and maintain tracking of such cards and their usage within District guidelines.

District Responses
Although the School District does not have a formal policy on flowers, the District has annually approved that the Superintendent act as the purchasing agent with an authority to expend up to $15,000 without Board approval provided that purchases are within appropriations. All purchases were subsequently approved after the fact by the Board of Education. All Non-District purchases have been reimbursed by the Superintendent prior to completion of the audit.

Furthermore, the Perry Local School Board adopted a lengthy resolution that served to put this entire issue to rest.  You can read the full resolution on their website. Here are a few of the highlights:

The Board approved the following Resolution of the Perry Local School District Board of  Education with regards to allegations against the Superintendent, Michael L. Sawyers.

III. Whereas the Board has accepted the recommendation of the Auditor of State as presented in the attached document, which will become a permanent part of this resolution; and

IV. Whereas the Board acknowledges that the Superintendent has exceeded per diem expenditures as provided for in Board Policy and that such policy permits such actions, and;

VIII. Whereas the Board acknowledges that the Superintendent has made personal purchases on a district credit card in violation of Ohio Revised Code and Board Policy, including food, alcohol, gas, a scenic tour and souvenirs, and said it was a mistake, and has repaid amounts totaling $858.19; and

XI. Whereas the Board desires to move forward with the operations of the school district.

Now, therefore be it resolved and understood as follows:

a. Board Policies 3440 and 4440 shall be revised effective July 1, 2010 to provide the Superintendent the authority to approve per diem overages except when the charge is for his own expenditures. Should the Superintendent exceed the board approved amount for his own per diem expenses; those expenses shall be subsequently approved by the board, or have been approved prior to the expense being incurred. Any amounts not previously approved or subsequently approved shall be the responsibility of the person incurring the charge.

b. The Superintendent is permitted to charge and required to document expenditures that are related to his attendance at a district related function as a district expense. The amount permitted shall be an amount that would be normal and customary for other chaperones/district employees to spend at the district sponsored event acting on behalf of the school district.

i. The Board shall place a letter of reprimand in the Superintendent’s personnel file in the form of this resolution.

So this scandal that the newspaper is trying to “expose” is a non-issue as far as the Perry Local School Board and Auditor of State are concerned and it should be for those anti-education central Ohio reporters trying to start more trouble at the Ohio Department of Education.

As you can see clearly from the report and resolution above, Sawyers acknowledge his actions and repaid the small sum, and the Board acknowledged that their own policies permitted such actions and therefore needed revised to help prevent this type of situation in the future.

Another ridiculously slanted article by the Dispatch as they continue to smear public education.  No longer satisfied with attacking institutions, the newspaper has recently decided to dedicate their large resources toward attacking individual employees.

What a disgrace.