Early in the Feb. 17 Cuyahoga Heights school board meeting, district principals recognized the students of the month in a nice little ceremony. One student shared with the audience a bit of advice. To paraphrase: "The longer you hide a mistake, the worse the consequences get. Tell the truth right away." The prescience was stunning.
Something is rotten in the Cuyahoga Heights school district. Helmed by the eminently joyless Dr. Holly Thacker, the school board acts like a narcissistic family arguing over Thanksgiving dinner. Still reeling from the district's former technology director's scheme to embezzle nearly $4 million from school coffers, the board has yet to reestablish any sense of trust with the community. Thacker, a board president hellbent on micromanagement and the cartoonish use of her gavel during meetings, can't seem to set the district's governance on any meaningful course.
That former technology director, Joe Palazzo, played a multifaceted but simple game: He was granted mostly unrestricted access to capital funds, including, as a small example, a $100,000 open purchase order (later increased by nearly 100 percent), and he set to work altering invoices for a number of apparently tech-related purchases, like laptops for students. Neither he nor the board sought competitive bids for most of these purchases, records show, and very little of what Palazzo "bought" ever ended up on school property.
Palazzo had worked out a routine where he would physically pick up the checks from the treasurer's office and run them off to any number of shell companies that would later route the money right back to him and his brother, Dominick Palazzo, and others. There was no oversight. One current school employee characterized the treasurer's office at that time as lax. (To illustrate the depth of this plan, the district issued 156 checks totaling $1,629,474 to a company called Laptops and More Inc. between 2007 and 2011. The company had been registered with the state by Dominick Palazzo. Bank records show that its only business was laundering Cuyahoga Heights school district money. $1.6 million.)
In all: "The District made 436 payments totaling $3,844,155 to seven companies related to Joseph Palazzo for which the District received no apparent goods or services," according to a special audit conducted by the state. "Additionally, a review of bank records disclosed 347 payments totaling $1,308,194 from four of these companies to Mr. Palazzo after District payments were received by the vendors."
"It stuns the conscience," State Auditor Dave Yost told the community in announcing his office's findings in 2012.
But that was then. Palazzo is serving an 11-year federal prison sentence now. The problem, though, is that his brand of dubious record-keeping remains part and parcel of the school board's machinations. Despite the audits and the years of public outcry, the board is haunted by dysfunction.
Last November, Lyndie Schuckert was elected to the Cuyahoga Heights school board. She brought with her a demand for transparency and open government – a natural foil to Thacker's six-year reign.
Thacker and former board president Tim Oden form something of a power bloc on the board. It's fascinating to watch them align during board discussions. Currently, though, they are mired in an ongoing scandal over district attorney's fees and the use of their private email accounts for board business. It's a scandal almost entirely of Thacker's making. The rest of the board is playing catch-up with public records requests and trying to piece together what sort of legal work their taxpaying constituents are paying for.
Schuckert is vocal with her calls for open discussion of the situation. With Gary Suchocki, the two form something of an alliance, much in the way that characters on MTV's Real World would do early in the season. James Lawrence, the Anthony Kennedy of the board, remains quiet most of the time, but it's his vote that tips the balance, 3-2, one way or the other.
What stands today is a scatterbrained board that serves more for entertainment purposes than school district governance. Board meetings are theater in Cuyahoga Heights, where angry taxpayers can't help but laugh as Thacker humblebrags her way through explanations of Robert's Rules of Order, gavel in hand.
"What are we hiding?" Lyndie Schuckert asked, sort of rhetorically but not really, at the Jan. 20 meeting.
Here's what they're hiding: Last year, the board – led by Thacker -- continually voted down assistant football coach Anthony Rinella's supplemental contract. Thacker opened an investigation into Rinella's background, racking up thousands of dollars in legal fees with very little in the way of results. To date, nothing has come back that would incriminate Rinella in any way, and he has no connection to the Palazzo scheme. It's unclear to the community and to some board members why Thacker pursued this investigation in the first place. This grandiose plot stoked the ire of residents, who began to fill out the seats at board meetings each month and rally around Rinella, who just wanted to return to coaching. (Rinella was finally approved in February, to thunderous rounds of applause.)
But the questions surrounding Thacker and Oden's private email accounts and their frequent communications with the district's attorney remain a confounding source of anger in the community. As the Rinella investigation toiled quietly onward, with no reports provided to the community, legal counsel was racking up thousands of dollars in wild goose chases.
The issue reached its boiling point when a single invoice for a month of legal communications ended up on the letterhead of two different law firms – with totally different presentations of information. Thacker and Oden – who sent emails to the treasurer insisting that that bill be paid -- have been repeatedly questioned about this documentation anomaly. They have never accounted for it.
But with board meetings that play out more like Barnum and Bailey theatrics than leadership "for the students," Cuyahoga Heights is among the more curious sources of small-town politics in Northeast Ohio. (Thacker is presently running for the Ohio Republican Party's state central committee District 24.) There's no sense of clarity as to how the rest of the year will pan out.
Based on previous meetings, Schuckert's rallying cries for transparency won't slow down. And the people's support for her cause isn't going anywhere.
"When you act as an entire board...you create an unhealthy environment," she told Thacker at the Feb. 17 meeting. "I feel absolutely devastated by how bad things truly are."
The next board meeting is March 16 at Cuyahoga Heights High School.
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