In late December, the website 3rd Rail Politics published a piece, The Curious Case of William Phillis, about the former Ohio Assistant Superintendent of Public Instruction and long-time Executive Director of the Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy of School Funding. As part of the title for the article, curious is an interesting – and ambiguous – word choice.

According to one dictionary, curious is defined as having aspects of the strange or novel. It also means inquisitive or having interest in others’ concerns.

There is nothing strange about Bill Phillis. But throughout his professional career, he has displayed consummate interest and concern about the kind of education children receive that might be far removed from what they rightly deserve.

In that respect, curious is indeed an interesting word choice by 3rd Rail Politics. Said another way, the antonym incurious means indifferent, uninterested, or inattentive.

None of these qualities describe the Executive Director of the Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy of School Funding, as he is a most interested and attentive educator.

To those who know him, as I have for 25 years, there is no ambiguous word choice to describe Bill Phillis. During a professional career spanning over a half-century, he has served the public in a number of roles, as a teacher, principal, school superintendent, assistant superintendent of public instruction as well as the executive director of the Ohio Coalition for Equity & Adequacy of School Funding.

In all of these positions throughout his career, he has not been indifferent, uninterested, or inattentive but inquisitive as to why children, the very future of this country, are not considered the top priority of our society. For Bill Phillis, public education and children are society’s assets, investments in the future. Contrast that with the activities of private companies that receive public funds and manage charter schools with hand-picked boards, entities whose primary focus is on the bottom line rather than the assets seated in their classrooms.

When you are inquisitive in your work and interested and concerned about others, chances are that you will examine the human condition to see how you might make a difference. During 16 years as assistant superintendent of public instruction, Bill Phillis wore out five vehicles from the state motor pool by visiting schools across the state, meeting with superintendents and elected governing boards, and expressing interest and concern about the physical, material, and spiritual state of public education.

What he found in his travel changed him, as he saw first-hand the poor facilities for housing students and the limited curriculum offered by low-wealth school districts. Yes, he was curious – in his interest about the plight of the state’s children. He wanted an answer as to why the Ohio Constitution’s guarantee of a thorough and efficient system of education was not being met in hundreds of school districts throughout the state.

Part of his assignment was to serve as the legislative liaison representing the state education agency, and he offered testimony during his tenure at the Ohio Department of Education (ODE) to inform the legislature about the inadequate state of Ohio’s education system.

He learned, for example, that in one school district, students were being taught in a remodeled former coal bin, a condition that was later revealed in a public television documentary about Ohio schools which was hosted by Bill Moyers. That unfortunate circumstance made him determined to become an advocate for children in every zip code in the Buckeye State, from the lake to the river.

It is a cause that he champions after four decades, a mission to fulfill the constitutional promise of the state to ensure that every child will receive a thorough and efficient education.

He left ODE to take a new position in 1992, that of the leader of a new organization, the Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy of School Funding, where he remains as the chief advocate for fair funding of Ohio school districts.

When I spoke to him last week, this is what he shared:

For the past forty years, with both ODE and the Coalition, the only goal I’ve had is to influence policy that would give each child in the public common school system a high quality education. The main distractor now is the choice movement. My philosophy and mission has been to meet the thorough and efficient constitutional promise. We haven’t met that provision yet. The choice system is extra-constitutional, and the state must first meet the thorough and efficient constitutional requirement.

Phillis’ words, actions, and philosophy are in marked contrast to how he was depicted in the 3rd Rail Politics piece. That depiction is not only inaccurate, but, in a word, curious.

Yes, repeat curious, to use the very word choice of 3rd Rail Politics. Here are a few glaring examples of factual errors taken from the 3rd Rail Politics article.

• “In 1976, Phyllis joined the Ohio Department of Education and was promoted through the ranks as Assistant Superintendent of Public Instruction.” FACT: Phillis was recruited by State Superintendent Martin Essex from the Columbiana County Schools and joined ODE as Assistant Superintendent of Public Instruction. He performed his duties as the second most senior administrator and had no need to move anywhere in the ranks.

• Phillis’ salary is reported as “approximately $140,000 annually.” FACT: His current salary has been set at $70,000 for the last several years. The Ohio Coalition, whose revenue is derived from dues paid by public school districts, is subject to regular state audits by the Ohio Auditor. However, unlike the Coalition,  we do not know the exact source or amount of operating revenue for 3rd Rail Politics, and whether any of it might be pass-through funds derived from public sources. More on that below.

• “The Coalition has rent free offices.” FACT: The Coalition pays $6,600 in annual rent for its office space in downtown Columbus, across the street from the Ohio Statehouse.

Comments on a number of other questionable assertions have been made in this and several other curious 3rd Rail Politics articles. But a full examination of the website might make Alice as well as Ohio citizens observe that, in the Wonderland otherwise known as 3rd Rail Politics, things become “curiouser and curiouser.”

A recent article on the Cleveland Plain Dealer website, New Ohio blog defends embattled online charter school, to which it appears to be tied, took a closer look at the curiosity called 3rd Rail Politics.

Since its recent launch, a new Ohio political blog has adopted an editorial stance that aggressively supports the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, Ohio’s largest online charter school that’s locked in a battle for its survival with the state government.

But the connections between 3rd Rail Politics and ECOT raise questions about to what extent a network of companies tied to the school’s influential founder, William Lager, might have been involved with the site’s launch and its ongoing coverage, has found.

The blog was launched in late August, a time when ECOT needed a friend — for months school officials had been fighting the Ohio Department of Education’s efforts to audit its student attendance.

The curious case of 3rd Rail Politics and its aggressive treatment of Bill Phillis and the Ohio E & A Coalition serves to demonstrate the basic hypocrisy of many charter cheerleaders as they attack public education advocates like him.

Where 3rd Rail Politics describes him as “one consistent drum pounder for more money,” we now know about the accounting procedure that some call “backfilling,” where the state appropriates locally raised tax dollars to subsidize state aid payments for charter schools. No elected boards of education have a say about the appropriation by the state of these local funds, and it has been advocates like Phillis who alert the public about what is being taken from school districts and being appropriated by the state without local consent, including deductions for online charter students.

As an example, Phillis has been a leader in encouraging school districts to invoice the state as well as ECOT to return funds appropriated to support the online behemoth. He believes the funds need to be returned to school districts and not to the state treasury. Here is what the P-D article stated about ECOT:

Following an audit, the state determined in September it had paid for 9,000 students it should not have last school year, finding that school officials could not provide adequate documentation showing these students had taken online classes full-time. The school received $64 million for these students, which the state now could seek to recover.

By comparison, 3rd Rail Politics is outraged about seeming overpayments of three employees at the Ohio Department of Education. A recent article, IG Finds ODE Leads State– in Ripping Off Taxpayers, revealed that several of the state education agency staff were overpaid, including one employee who was paid “$690.08 more than legally allowed.” 3rd Rail believes that we should be outraged about an overpayment of $690.08, which they characterized as a “rip-off,” but as for a $64 million overpayment to ECOT  in just one year, that’s another matter.

But if hypocrisy is the nature of 3rd Rail Politics, that condition is only aggravated by the lack of disclosure about the origins of and financial support for the website. The Plain Dealer’s article raised the question about whether or not ECOT founder and Republican Party mega-donor William Lager might be the force behind the blog:

In that September article and in subsequent ones she wrote about ECOT, the new editor, Cyndy Rees, did not disclose that she served on ECOT’s board during the 2000s. She also did not disclose that she served as recently as late 2013 on the board of trustees for Provost Academy, a small Columbus-based online charter school that, like ECOT, faced being forced to return most of its state funding after a state attendance audit determined it could not document that students actually took the classes the school billed for.

Rees did not respond to messages from asking who hired her, who oversees her coverage, or who owns or funds 3rd Rail Politics. She wrote a blog post on Tuesday that described the site’s “investor” as an unidentified “Cleveland businessman” who “agreed to help launch the site” to provide more “down-the-middle” coverage of charter schools. But the site’s legal address, listed in state incorporation articles filed in September, is the same office and suite number that was previously used by two companies with ties to Lager and his family members.

If the lack of disclosure by 3rd Rail Politics wasn’t enough, the P-D found some other interesting things that would make Alice and others curiouser and curiouser:

That address, an office near Downtown Columbus, as recently as April was listed as the address for Standing Inovation, a company that sells equipment that converts traditional desks into desks that can be used while standing. Lager and his company hold the patent for Standing Inovation’s main piece of technology, federal records show, and Lager’s son-in-law, James Harris, is the company’s vice-president of business development, according to his LinkedIn profile.

As recently as 2014, the same office housed Third Wave Communications, a company for which Lager’s daughter, Jessica Harris, works in a principal role, according to the company’s website. And county property records show the office suite’s owner is Dominic Lariccia, whose design business has done work for multiple Lager-related business as well as a Republican lobbying firm that until recently represented ECOT.

Neil Clark, a prominent Republican Columbus lobbyist and ECOT spokesman, described the mutual location of 3rd Rail Politics, Standing Inovation and Third Wave Communications as “probably” coincidental.

So as we consider the curious case of 3rd Rail Politics, we find not only the coincidental but the undisclosed and the downright hypocritical – much more than $690.08 worth, to be sure.

It’s about a new website whose editor says it is funded by a Cleveland businessman when the Cleveland Plain Dealer found that other indicators point to the shadowy presence of  ECOT’s William Lager and his business interests. And it’s about a website that attacks a leader of an organization with a budget of $250,000 that is operated transparently through school district funds to engage the legislature, while an online charter school the website apparently represents was overpaid $64 million in state funds in just one year and uses public funds to pay for commercials to attack its critics, enable campaign donations to its legislative friends, and fuel public relations and lobbying efforts on its behalf.

What’s the word choice here? Apparently? Probably?

And if coincidental, undisclosed and hypocritical weren’t enough, we have the irony of it all, as seen in this 3rd Rail Politics story attacking Peggy Lehner, Chair of the Senate Education Committee, with this curious title “(We’re) trying to keep that hidden.

Isn’t that headline also apropos to 3rd Rail Politics? How curious.


Denis Smith is a retired school administrator and a former consultant in the Ohio Department of Education’s charter school office. He writes about education issues as well as politics and constitutional reform.