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Court to hear dispute on charter-school equipment

COLUMBUS, Ohio – The Ohio Supreme Court is weighing arguments by charter schools they are entitled to equipment bought by their management company with taxpayer dollars without having to pay for the property.

The case, to be heard Sept. 23, comes with a political twist: The Democratic candidate for attorney general is criticizing GOP incumbent Mike DeWine for dropping out of the case after strongly backing the schools’ arguments earlier.

“To simply abandon this argument your team made so strongly a couple of years ago doesn’t make sense,” said Democrat David Pepper.

At issue are arguments by several charter schools formerly run by Akron-based White Hat Management that taxpayer dollars remain public when management companies use them for operating publicly funded charter schools.

Items such as textbooks, computers and furniture purchased by a management company using taxpayer dollars belong to the charter school for which they were bought, the schools say.

“White Hat must be accountable for how it uses public funds to operate public schools,” attorney Karen Hockstad said in a filing with the court.

The schools appealed to the Supreme Court after two lower courts rejected their claims.

White Hat was founded by Akron industrialist David Brennan, a leading GOP campaign contributor in Ohio.

The decision to leave the case was not influenced by campaign contributions, said Dan Tierney, a DeWine spokesman. White Hat had no contact with anybody who would make that decision, Tierney said. White Hat declined to comment.

White Hat says in almost all circumstances it owns the property because the public money it receives for operating schools becomes private when it takes control of it, a fact made clear in its contracts with schools.

“White Hat could not cause the schools to incur debt, dissolve them or bind them. In turn, the schools had no authority to direct how White Hat purchased property,” David Paragus, an attorney for White Hat, said in a court filing.

DeWine backed the schools’ position at the appeals court level, arguing there is no practical difference between White Hat and a traditional school district’s administration.

“The schools, and hence White Hat, have received approximately $100,000,000 in public funds – money that came from other public schools,” attorneys for DeWine argued in a court filing two years ago. “The schools were attended by thousands of students. That shows that this case involves more than 'purely private business.”’

The attorney general supported the schools when the Department of Education was involved in the lawsuit, Tierney said. The appeals court removed the agency at White Hat’s request and DeWine’s position then became that of a friend of the court, or an interested party.

After internal discussions, DeWine’s office decided not to support the schools at the Supreme Court level because there wasn’t a constitutional challenge to Ohio law and the Education Department’s position was the same as the schools, Tierney said.