Fredericktown Local Schools

A sign on the lawn of Fredericktown Local Schools.

FREDERICKTOWN – An informal opinion from the Ohio attorney general's office states two board members-elect for Fredericktown Local Schools cannot serve as local school board members while being employed by the joint vocational school — Knox County Career Center — that serves the local school district.

Assistant Attorney General Byers Emmerling offered that opinion, written on behalf of Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost, to Knox County Prosecutor Chip McConville on Dec. 22, 2021.

The board members-elect, Nathan Bellman and Paul Napier, are set to take office Tuesday, after voters selected them to serve on the board in the Nov. 2 election. Bellman runs marketing and communications for KCCC, and Napier works as technology coordinator for KCCC. 

Bellman and Napier declined Knox Pages’ interview requests in separate e-mails:

Bellman wrote, “I am unable to comment due to impending litigation."

Napier stated, “Unfortunately I am hesitant to talk since this is a legal matter at this time.”

Paul Napier

Paul Napier has experience as technology coordinator at Knox County Career Center. 

The informal opinion is not an official statement of the attorney general’s views on the question but rather an analysis of the situation by the assistant attorney general. Informal, and formal, opinions are advisory, meaning the opinion does not block the board members-elect from taking office. 

Interim superintendent Jim Peterson said the choice of whether Bellman and Napier take office Tuesday is ultimately up to them. However, Peterson said he advised them to speak with legal counsel. 

“I know this is a curveball that's been thrown at the district and certainly the two candidates that ran for board seats,” Peterson told Knox Pages. “I just think we all need to work together to resolve any and all issues and move forward to protect our children and our staff.”

Nathan Bellman

Nathan Bellman currently runs marketing and communications for Knox County Career Center and formerly was Fredericktown's athletic director. 

Peterson, who took over as interim superintendent Jan. 3, said community members raised the issue of the potential conflict with board members. The Ohio School Boards Association and the board’s legal counsel concluded the positions were likely incompatible, he said, and the informal opinion by the AG's office came to the same conclusion. 

McConville said he sought an opinion from the attorney general following a request by the Fredericktown Local Schools’ attorney in December. The attorney general provides written opinions on legal questions at the request of designated public officials, but does not prepare opinions for private citizens, which is why the request had to come from the county prosecutor.

“At the request of the attorney for the Fredericktown school district, I requested an attorney general's opinion about the compatibility of serving as a school board member and as an employee of the career center,” McConville said. “And the attorney general's office — to turn it around quickly — gave me an informal opinion, but the opinion said that the employment at the career center and serving on the Fredericktown school board, because Fredericktown is one of the component boards of the career center, is those positions are not compatible. 

“I have passed those opinions along to the two potentially affected school board members-elect. What they do is up to them.”

Getting on the ballot

Director of the Knox County Board of Elections Kim Horn wrote to Knox Pages that the BOE placed Bellman and Napier on the ballot because they met the requirements to run for school board.

Those specific requirements include: must be a U.S. citizen; at least 18 years old; a resident of the school district for at least 30 days preceding the election; registered to vote in the school district for at least 30 days preceding the election.

“The Board of Elections does not act as legal counsel to a candidate nor do we inquire as to where they are employed,” Horn wrote. “We cannot make the determination of a conflict of interest. It is the responsibility of the candidate to speak with legal counsel.

"Anyone protesting a candidate appearing on the November 2021 ballot, could have filed such a protest by Aug. 20, 2021.”

Fredericktown voters

Fredericktown residents cast votes on Nov. 2 at Fredericktown Local Schools, located at 117 Columbus Road. 

The reasoning behind incompatibility 

The informal opinion cited five reasons as to why serving on the Fredericktown School Board and working at KCCC are incompatible, according to a copy of the opinion provided by Ohio attorney general press secretary Steve Irwin. 

Overall, the two board members-elect cannot sufficiently avoid the conflicts of interests.

“Even if the two local school board members recuse themselves from matters involving the joint vocational school that employs them, such recusal would occur too often to be practical and acceptable,” Emmerling wrote.

First, a person serving as a local school board member while employed by a joint vocational school has conflicting loyalties, Emmerling wrote, specifically citing a related 2003 opinion about a board member of a local school district simultaneously working as principal of a school in a joint vocational school district that includes the territory of the local school district. 

“Although the two positions you inquire about are not principals of a school in a joint vocational school district, we find that 2003 Op. Att’y Gen. No. 2003-010 provides numerous reasons for why the positions you inquire about are not compatible,” Emmerling wrote. 

Second, school boards participating in a joint vocational school district can vote to dissolve (See 2-73) the joint vocational school district.

Emmerling wrote both board members-elect would have a personal interest and strong incentive to vote against a resolution to dissolve the joint vocational school district — “even if the resolution to dissolve was well-founded and the best course of action.”

Third, as school board members and employees of a joint vocational school district, they may be tasked with considering the needs of the joint vocational school district (their employer) as a local school board member. 

“This would create a situation where conflicting loyalties could occur because the board member may be tempted to consider the needs of the employing joint vocational school above the needs of the served local school district,” Emmerling wrote. 

Fourth, limited finances present conflicts.

A local school district and a joint vocational school district must submit budgets to the county auditor. The auditor submits budgets to the county budget commission, which can make adjustments to the budgets and ultimately affects each entity's revenue. 

“So, because the funding available is finite, a joint vocational school district and a local school district are in adverse positions to one another,” Emmerling wrote.

Fifth, another aspect of district finances — the ability to place levies on the ballot — is in conflict.

Specifically, local school districts and joint vocational school districts can place a levy on the ballot for taxes in excess of the 10-mill limitation, and both can submit the question of whether to issue bonds.

Emmerling wrote it is conceivable a person serving both as a local school board member and as employee of a joint vocational school “would be subject to divided loyalties while deliberating, discussing, or voting on the local school district’s proposed tax levy or bond issue.”

Next steps

Fredericktown's school board will meet at 6 p.m. Jan. 11 for the first time in 2022, when Bellman and Napier are set to take office. It is unclear at this time if Bellman and Napier will assume their roles. 

Out of the seven candidates who competed for three seats on the school board in November, Bellman received the most votes and Napier received the second-most, 902 and 670 respectively, according to the official results.

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Emma Davis is a 2021 graduate of the University of Richmond, from which she holds a bachelor's degree in journalism and leadership studies. Emma reports for Knox Pages and Ashland Source through Report for America.

Emma Davis is a 2021 graduate of the University of Richmond, from which she holds a bachelor's degree in journalism and leadership studies. Emma reports for Knox Pages and Ashland Source through Report for America.