Toledo Board of Education President Steven Steel - conflicted or not?

A lot has been said and written as to whether Steven Steel has a conflict of interest or not, well we did some research.

The Urban Coalition has investigated the situation including the definitions of a Conflict of Interest, Ohio Ethics Commission advisory opinions, the Ohio Revised Code, why public service unions such as the Toledo Federation of Teachers participate in selecting their “bosses” through election and much more.

We have all the relevant TPS documents including the letter from the Ohio Ethics Commission to Steel, TPS legal counsel’s opinion and supporting documentation, etc.

Included is our opinion and a large number of unanswered questions for Steel, but all the information is there for you to ask the questions, do additional research and come to your own conclusions.

Comments at

Documentation and discussion can be found here

If you have a different opinion than the one expressed at, please let us know what your opinion is and how you arrived at your conclusions.

No votes yet

his position to work to improve his own financial status under a negotiated contract I would think his input during the contract talks would be beneficial to the process. In order to remove any doubt regarding his ability to be impartial he should not cast a vote for or against the proposed contract.


Steel will directly and indirectly benefit from a new contract. His household income will increase with a pay increase and any new benefits will benefit him. So you and all of us should not give him a pass, especially since there are people who could do the same job who would be without question of a conflict. I cannot see how this is excusable. In America, we prefer our governmental officials to excuse themselves even with the smallest level of conflict. The standard you suggest is wrong because you are saying it is OK to have a conflict as long as if the person does not prove it. According to your reasoning, he has to be caught with his hand in the cookie jar before we can say he has a conflict. That is not how we operate and not how the Ohio Ethics Commission recommends things to be done. They recommend to stay away from the cookie jar in the first place.
Is it legal for him to do it? Maybe, but why?

So the question should be why does Steel want to do it so bad when others can do it? Maybe there is an ulterior motive.

Legally, there is no conflict of interest. He's not covered by TPS insurance and his wife resigned from the union's board of directors. While he may benefit from any increased pay that his wife receives in a new union contract, the legal opinion issued by AG Mark Dann establishes standards for cases like Steel's potential conflict.

Any legal challenge of Steel's participation under RC 4117.20 would need to get around RC 4117.22, which states:

4117. of the Revised Code shall be construed liberally for the
accomplishment of the purpose of promoting orderly and constructive
relationships between all public employers and their employees."

Unless I've misinterpreted this passage, the guidelines in the Chapter 4117 are flexible. Before Steel's interests are discussed, a compelling reason why any exemption of his potential conflicts of interest under 4117.20 should be nullified. Given the lack of cases prosecuted under 4117.20, the judge would likely use the standard outlined in AG Dann's opinion. Since Steel isn't part of the TFT nor receives TFT-negotiated insurance, the case would likely be thrown out.

It's like the Scout fiasco - Was the mayor technically correct? Yes, but he should have kept the dog home before lawyers became involved. While Steel legally can participate in the negotiation process, he should voluntarily exclude himself from the talks to avoid the appearance of impropriety.

There is another solution: give the board members insurance coverage. Conflict averted.


"Show me a man who lives alone and has a perpetually dirty kitchen, and
five times out of nine I'll show you an exceptional man." -Charles

There's a city full of walls you can post complaints at

You have certainly gotten the gist of the legalese based upon my research. I disagree that "construed liberally" would mean the judge would throw it out and use the standard outlined in AG Dann's opinion.

I'm not aware of any opinion written by Dann on this issue. Unless I missed it, no such opinion was included in the research presented at If you are aware of an opinion, please provide a link for review. Could you be referring to the Ohio Ethics Commission advisory opinions that were posted?

Opinions by the Ethics Commission are "advisory" and therefore subject to interpretation by the courts if challenged. To my knowledge no one has ever challenged this in court. If you think about it, who besides the affected unions have the wherewithal to challenge such an opinion? Why would they challenge an interpretation that is to their benefit?

Chris is right - there is a benefit, at least indirectly, to Steel's household in both monetary and benefit terms. Although according to Ethics Commission this is not a direct "interest" that would preclude him from voting since he does not personally receive the benefits and monetary compensation. IMO, a very narrow interpretation of the current ethics statutes that were not construed liberally to protect the interests of the citizens that school districts exist to serve a vital function.

Providing insurance for Board members is not a good solution IMO as it neglects and does not address the issue of the perception of conflict of interest and its impact on the public's belief that the Board is negotiating for the community and not for the benefit of the TFT, TAAP and AFSCME members who are TPS employees. Therein lays the heart of my concern.

BTW - 4117 deals with collective bargaining and is not under the jurisdiction of the Ohio Ethics Commission.

I disagree that "construed liberally" would mean the judge would throw
it out and use the standard outlined in AG Dann's opinion.

Since cases questioning interests of school board members have already been deliberated, the judge assigned to a lawsuit against Steel would rely upon those precidents to determine whether Steel's involvement constitutes a conflict. It doesn't matter if RC 4117.20 has been challenged, a judge will apply the standard from another case if the scenarios are similar. If a suit were brought claiming Steel directly benefits from the TFT contract, it would need to involve compensation not covered by previous decisions.

I'm not aware of any opinion written by Dann on this issue. Unless I
missed it, no such opinion was included in the research presented at If you are aware of an opinion, please provide a link for
review. Could you be referring to the Ohio Ethics Commission advisory
opinions that were posted?

Dann's opinion is Exhibit G in the Squire, Sanders, & Dempsey opinion's supporting evidence. It's on your site already and the opinion was issued in June of last year.

Providing insurance for Board members is not a good solution IMO as it
neglects and does not address the issue of the perception of conflict
of interest and its impact on the public's belief that the Board is
negotiating for the community and not for the benefit of the TFT, TAAP
and AFSCME members who are TPS employees.

There's going to be an appearance of impropriety on the board even if Steel recuses himself because TFT, TAAP, and AFSCME members vote for school board members and their unions endorse candidates. There's no way to stop TPS employees from voting because doing so would disenfranchise the union members and endorsements are protected under the First Amendment.

And one more thing: I'm really diggin' the rich text editor's indent feature. It makes quotes much easier to read.


"Show me a man who lives alone and has a perpetually dirty kitchen, and
five times out of nine I'll show you an exceptional man." -Charles

There's a city full of walls you can post complaints at


I reviewed the documents some time ago and read the opinion. So much information to process. Thank you for reminding me. I should point out that the opinion specifically states that it does not cover 4117.20 or other common law principles.

You are right about using existing cases as a basis for proceeding with regard to other statutes such as 4117.20. However, that does not mean that the case would be decided based upon those cases. Although it is likely unless other evidence or information is presented.

I never said nor implied that a law must be challenged to be valid. However, until a law is challenged we don't know if the courts would see things differently than the legislature and perhaps add "new meaning" to its interpretation.

I must say that I disagree with your conclusions about union members voting for Steel. They are independent voters acting in the privacy of a ballot box. Are they influenced by their union's endorsement? Sometimes yes and sometimes no. However they are not acting as a unit as they do at the bargaining table and when financial support is provided to the candidate by the union.

Finally, I have never claimed that Steel is legally barred from voting or participating in the process. But it seems obvious to me that the situation raises serious concerns about the appearance of impropriety and whether the public's interests are truly being put first. And of course, over time laws may be changed to reflect heightened concerns over this issue such as when Ohio's pay to play laws were enacted which limited contributions by unions such as the TFT to their "elected bosses".

Maybe it's time to revisit.

Would you would recuse yourself if you were in Steel's shoes?


Where do we disagree? I believe the Ohio Ethics Commission says that elected officials should avoid the appearance of conflict at all cost (stay away from the cookie jar) and that includes there is not a specific ruling. This given there are other board members who would not have any conflicts makes it inappropriate regardless of the law. The fact is Steel's household will benefit from increases in pay or benefits. That is a fact.

Of course you are not going to see a specific Steven Steel situation, because they don't just go out and make rulings on every elected official. Even the law firm says it cannot assure that it is OK because there is not enough rulings and cases.

If we as a community stop expecting our leaders to be the best civil servants, then we deserve what we get. Anyone making a pass for this case is not demanding the best because there could be better representation on the board during negotiations, but for some odd reason Steel does not want it. That should be the question the media should ask.

The most they will give you is an opinion. What Squire, Sanders, and Dempsey said was that Steel should take a less active role in the negotiation process and not serve as the representative for the board at the negotiation sessions. Or at least that's what I deciphered from the opinion.

I believe the Ohio Ethics Commission says that elected officials should
avoid the appearance of conflict at all cost (stay away from the cookie
jar) and that includes there is not a specific ruling.

Actually, in Exhibit F on the SSD Supporting Documentation PDF they stated:

"the Ethics Law does not prohibit you from discussing or voting on a union contract if your spouse is a member of the union unless she is an officer or employee of the union, or on the contract negotiating team."

They give their approval to a board member voting on a union member from a legal standpoint.

Of course you are not going to see a specific Steven Steel situation,
because they don't just go out and make rulings on every elected

What I'm saying is that the judge will rely upon precedents in similar cases, and practically identical cases exist in Ohio as far back as the Ohio Supreme Court's 1922 ruling in Board of Education v. Boal. The court's opinion noted that women were independent from their husbands with regards to contract negotiations. I'm not saying he shouldn't recuse himself, I'm saying that given the legal precedents, Steel is legally clear to participate in the negotiations.


"Show me a man who lives alone and has a perpetually dirty kitchen, and
five times out of nine I'll show you an exceptional man." -Charles

There's a city full of walls you can post complaints at

I believe I agreed with you. But I also said that such a conclusion is not necessarily assured. I also have stated that I believe the bar should be raised regarding the standards of ethical conduct.

No one is disagreeing that a judge would proceed as you have suggested. However there is the appearance of impropriety because of the perceived conflict of interest that can undermine the trust in the process by the public and the consequent erosion of support as a result.

It is not illegal assuming Steel has complied with the two issues that were originally in question. Just because a behavior or action is legal does not make it the proper course of action. Look at how the TFT skirted Ohio's pay to play laws (yes I know that the laws are being challenged based on improper procedures - not the basis for the actual law) in order to influence the last election for school board.

You still did not answer my question to establish where you would set the bar regarding ethical conduct. Would you recuse yourself if you were in Steel's shoes?

It is arguments like this, which hold our district at a "stand still". Let us move forward. Steve Steel is not stepping down (I hope), nor should he.

I want to see PRODUCTIVE changes that improve our district. Will this argument really benefit our students and the district? Some believe so, many do not. Let us put our energy into advocating for productive, beneficial changes. If an administrator's wife or husband is a teacher, that says that says to me, they care about our district that much more. Teachers do not get jobs in TPS to be rich............they do it because they love to teach.

Sandy. The reason that the district is in "stand still" is people refuse to deal with the problems and poor government.

I saw TPS's flaws when I was only a student of education when no one knew who I was and I know it is shocking for many education students what they see in TPS. The funny thing is they still exist almost 10 years after I first saw them. Talk about "Stand Still." Unlike you and many in the district I promised to actually to try to change it and I expected to do it without pay because I cared for the sake of our community.

The problem with the district now is too many people profit off if it and the kids are secondary. Those who profit off of it work hard and put money and resources in to ensure that their cut is protected through the support of levies and candidates that will protect them.

I only profit my children’s education and opportunities.

I have nothing against you or anyone with different views. We are all entitled to our own opinion. As I have said in the past, I spend endless days at our schools, for the benefit of all students. I feel respect is a two way street. Administration does not always agree with me, but they work with me. I know of many families involved in our schools and none of them has issues like this. We enjoy what we do and our schools respect our input. We make changes that benefit the students our district serves. That is productive........................

Maybe the people don't understand the issues because they don't know what to expect. Maybe the expectation of poor academics is normal. I have been able to see 6-7 school districts from the inside, and TPS ranks the lowest out of all of them, interestingly enough the same as the academic rankings.

Until you and many other people in the district raise their expectations, and work hard to implement it, things will remain the same. The district is now fully set up to remain nothing more than mediocre institution for a long time to come.

Sandy, you always seem to interpret situations like this very narrowly and in the context of how it seems to affect you personally.

Nobody has asked Steel to step down. Although the Urban Coalition believes he should NOT have entered the race for school board. At the time he was campaigning he was in fact "conflicted".

letter dated August 16, 2005
letter from the Ethics Commission dated November 3, 2005 to Steel

(Note the letter arrived before the 11/8/05 election - we ask the question of whether such a disclosure before the election in 2005 would have impacted the election results as Steel finished 3rd in a race for 3 positions ahead of Steven Thomas by just 711 votes (21,761 to 21,050)

The Ohio Ethics Commission confirmed our concerns in a letter that Steel did not release to anyone until January 2008 - more than two years later. Go to and read more about this.

Also, you seem to want to use diversion as a tactic to avoid the subject. The truth is, adults make the decisions that impact children. Politics as practiced by pubic service unions such as the TFT impact the ability to address the very issues you are crying out about - "I want to see PRODUCTIVE changes that improve our district. Will this argument really benefit our students and the district? "

IMO this argument must be discussed and resolved if productive changes can ever occur. TPS is at a standstill because the TFT controls the reigns of policy making through contractual language that has been obtained over 30 years through the political impact of the TFT on the make up of the board.

As to the argument that teachers don't get rich, they do very well with great benefits (no longer a Mercedes medical plan, but certainly a Cadillac) and a retirement package that is the envy of almost everyone else. Besides, teachers have families too and they must pay the bills. Why would they not, through their lobby group the TFT, try to improve their salary and benefits while assuring that their job performance can not be questioned?

Read about Teacher compensation at

This comment is so right on.--------"I only profit my children’s education and opportunities."------- I take it to mean that you only profit from your children's education and opportunities. That is so very true. I bet the Scott parents feel the same way. Or I should say would like to feel the same way. I use Scott because that is the high school that my children would attend or did attend. I drive by there at least twice a day. The marquee has not been changed for at least three weeks. They are still advertising the OGT tests and the MKL holiday. Neglect!

Students seen taken out by police two and three at a time on a daily basis. Neglect!

School on Academic Watch or Emergency. Neglect!

No facilities coordinator, no principal. Neglect!

Building falling apart, but last on the list in the Building For Success program.Neglect!

Lack of outdoor sports and fitness facilities. Neglect!

One Foreign language, Spanish. Neglect!

No Honors program or Advanced Placement. Neglect!

What kind of respect should these parents have of this District? The Mission is not being fulfilled at Scott.

How would you feel if this school was where your children had to attend. Would you be as merry? I don't think so.

This is a shameful situation but as long as you got yours to hell with the others.

Incidentally, missed you at the board meeting today. :=)

Actually, I helped at an Academic Achievement Night and served dinners to families............any great developments at the meeting?

I also go to schools and help when asked. I have no students at Libbey HS and organized a "make it and take it" event with the Humanities small school leader. Even though my children do not attend a school, I am called and asked to help and I Do. Inaddition, I work with over 300 TPS Special Olympic athletes and their families- through the district.
I am out there and not just for mine.

My point was, issues like this blog only hold our district at a stand still. I know many great parents that are out in our schools making a difference and see nothing wrong with Steel.

PS TWila: Why dont you go to Scott and make a differece? You could change the marquee weekly, tutor and be a mentor to students.

And we see complicit parties lash out :-)

Any parent has seen this. Line up two of your kids and ask who broke the window. Typically you will see a dishonest kid (who did break the window)1. Lie - point at the other child and/or 2. deflect - start yelling at you because you NEVER TRUST THEM and YOU'RE ALWAYS QUESTIONING THEM. You are the bad guy not them. Typically a kid can't use the local daily to make their case, however. That's an interesting twist -

The Blade story said this:"Board members Darlene Fisher and Robert Torres continue to insist that Mr. Steel, who was elected to the Toledo Public Schools board in 2005, disqualify himself from deliberations about contract negotiations with the Toledo Federation of Teachers because his wife, Catherine Hernandez, is employed as a teacher in the district.

We disagree, and so do the Ohio Ethics Commission and the Cleveland law firm Squires, Sanders, and Dempsey, both of which were asked for opinions on the possible ethical implications of this case."

While the Ohio Ethics Commission actually said this: "However, because your spouse is a board member of the teachers' union, she has a sufficiently definite and direct interest in the master contract to invoke the prohibitions of R.C. 2921.42(A)(l). Therefore, if you are elected and serve as a school board member, you would be prohibited from voting, discussing, deliberating, recommending, or otherwise using your authority or influence, as a board member, to secure ratification of the collective bargaining agreement between the district and the teachers' union."

And the Cleveland law firm Squires, Sanders, and Dempsey actually said this: "Despite the restrictions discussed above with respect to an individual's contract or terms of employment, the ethics law does not prohibit a board member from discussing or voting on a union contract when the spouse is a member of the union unless: (1) the spouse is an officer or employee of the union; (2) the spouse is on the contract negotiating team; or (3) the board member receives health insurance benefits through the spouse's coverage with the district. While a union's master contract is a public contract, an individual teacher's interest in the master contract is not sufficiently definite and direct as to invoke the prohibitions of R.C. Section 2921.42(A)(l), which prohibit a public official from using the influence of office to secure the employment of a family member."

In no way is the Blade editorial reflective of the opinions set forth. How do these people live with themselves?

I guess it's a good indication - when a statement of misconduct is made publicly that the guilty parties start to squirm.

To have the local paper stating opinions incorrectly and printing mocking cartoons is a blatant guilt response.

If you're here to tell me it's my fault - you're right. I meant to do it. It was alot of fun. That's why I have this happy smile on my face.

Banana has got the legalese down and understands the laws as interpreted. Of course, that does not mean the laws that exist deal effectively with the concern of conflict of interest. Nor does it mean that the Ohio Ethics Commission has interpreted them accurately.

1. Do you personally believe this is a conflict of interest?

2. If you were in Steel's shoes, would you recuse yourself?

And since I asked the questions, let me provide my answers.

1. Yes!

2. I would recuse myself.

I personally believe in a higher standard of ethical conduct than that interpreted by the Ohio Ethics Commission (Based upon the way the Commission operates and its interpretations, I am inclined to see the name Ohio Ethics Commission as an oxymoron.)

I believe that effective government requires the highest ethical standards to assure that the people are served and not special interests and lobbyists.

As a final note, some may believe my concerns are really disguised as a personal attack upon Steel. In fact, he has said as much to others. I could understand his concern if this were the first time I have addressed conflict of interest issues with the Toledo Board of Education. In reality, I have been discussing these issues publicly at board meetings and in writings for several years now.

In 2004 I spoke before the Toledo Board of Education about another conflict of interest and at that time I said, "This Board has never met a conflict of interest it has not embraced." This was not my first time and it was well before Steel was a candidate or elected to the Board! I happen to believe that Steel is one of the most egregious examples of the kinds of conflicts that have resulted in a loss of the public's ability through its elected representatives to control, let alone influence, public policy. It seemed a fitting example to promote public discussion and eventually result in changes to existing statutes - you have to start somewhere.

Also, read my guest column in the Toledo Free Press - 1/18/2008 Money, influence and public policy

...and it will be interesting to see what reasons any ruling states when a result is finally acheived. Mr. Steel's wife while a member of the union is no longer a member of the executive board. She probably will have no role in negotiating the contract, and I would expect Mr. Steel to recuse himself if she did. Certainly, it would be proper for TPS to abrogate such a contract. If I were Mr. Steel I would recuse myself from the process since we do hold public officials to a higher standard than private citizens. After all, I expect to get screwed by businessmen.

Old South End Broadway

Old South - the advisory opinions from the Ethics Commission say that if Steel's wife is not on the board of directors for the TFT and he does not take health insurance, then he can participate.

Steel says his wife resigned although no one has ever saw a letter of resignation. I'm looking into getting the information filings required by the labor department to verify information. His wife still has an official position with the TFT: Legislative Director. So she is still active in union leadership, but supposedly not on the board of the TFT.

Steel provided a letter from the Director of Employee Benefits of TPS that says he is not currently covered by his wife's health insurance. However, he has never provided information as to having benefits and if so when he terminated those benefits. He has voted on every issue including the contract extension last year and MOU's since he was elected. If at any time during his tenure on the board, he voted on TFT contract matters and had health insurance he violated ethics laws and would be subject to prosecution.

Steel refuses to answer the question. It has been posed by citizens and two Board members. We are contemplating an ethics complaint so that an investigation is completed if he does not provide documentation. If he is in fact innocent, why does he refuse to release the information?

While not technically a conflict of interest according to the Ohio Ethics Commission (this is not a court of law but an advisory opinion) requiring that he recuse himself (assuming he has told the truth about his wife and her TFT position), this type of situation undermines the public's trust and confidence that the public's interests come first.

I'm glad to see that you would recuse yourself. It is the right thing to do!

to 1. have the people who are mouthpieces for the administration keep trying the tired old tactic of letting purnhrt know that 'they know who she is'...ooooohhhh......scary. I'm not impressed that you continue to call her by name rather than her user name. Sandy it just makes you look like a bully.

2. the fact that you would suggest she needs to do something to help the situation tells me that you are, indeed, a card carrying member of the good 'ol boy network. You believe what you've been told and it's wrong once again.

You will have to look long and far to find anyone who has worked so hard as this lady to make sure that children are well treated and educated.

My hat is off to this lady and after all she has done to educate and defend children, she deserves to be treated with great respect.

If you're here to tell me it's my fault - you're right. I meant to do it. It was alot of fun. That's why I have this happy smile on my face.


Why wont they let you? Have you brought your negative attitude to the schools? Hard to believe...........




In 2004, Gene Sanders negotiated a retroactive pay agreement with TPS’ bargaining units that authorized payments back to 2002, underlings signed the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), and the MOU was never ratified by the Board.

TPS has never gotten a legal opinion that asks whether the MOU is legally binding and where legal counsel researches applicable statutes and case law to determine the extent, if any, of the Board’s legal liability.

I have been told by qualified sources that the Board must ratify the MOU for it to be legal under Ohio statutes. I'm checking into the appropriate statutes.

Foley and Steel are not supporting a legal review of this issue. The unwillingness to determine the legal liability here is highly suspicious IMO.

Both Steel and Foley have wives that are TPS teachers and stand to see their household income increase as a result of accepting the MOU as a liability of the district.

I’m not sure how long their wives have been TPS teachers but for discussion purposes let’s assume that they make at least $50K. The amount due teachers is 2.01% (1.48% and another "me too" amount of .53% negotiated by TAAP) for each year. Calculating this back to 2002 gives you a retroactive payment of about $6K.

Six thousand dollars would make, in the minds of many, a pretty good incentive to just accept the MOU without doing your due diligence. Of course, there is always the wrath of a powerful TFT leadership where past boards and superintendents genuflected when the TFT barked.

Common sense would dictate you determine your legal liability and if in fact the MOU was not legally ratified you would gain some leverage in negotiating a settlement to this nightmare! At this time, payment of over $20 million dollars is in order to all employees (and most likely a partial payment would be due any employee who retired or was laid off).

So why are Steel and Foley resisting efforts to determine the legality of the MOU?

Would Joe Citizen believe that Steel voted for a contract in order to assure his household income is enriched by $6K?

Regardless of the ruling by the Ohio Ethics Commission, most prudent individuals would see how both Steel and Foley would, at a minimum, indirectly profit through an increase in household income.

The same would hold true for any negotiated increase in salaries. The issue of benefits would come into play if they have children that would be covered under the health insurance plan. Steel has a daughter attending Grove Patterson with an extended day, small classes of only 20 students, foreign language, etc. (and just how both Steel’s and Ford’s children got into a school with a lottery is another interesting question that makes one question if they used their influence to get an education that cost on average $5K more than other TPS schools – now there is another issue that brings into question ethics and ethics laws).

Unless the state comes up with a lot more funding or TPS can pass a new levy, this amount due under the MOU can not be paid. R.C. 5705.412 would come into play which requires the Board President, Treasurer and Superintendent to certify that the monies are available to be paid out during the term of the contract. The retroactive payment came about because at the time it was negotiated, TPS was not able to meet the provisions of 5705.412.

This long saga is still not settled. Check out 5/31/2006 Rollback TPS’ retroactive payments. Since this article was written, I was able to determine that the Board never ratified this MOU.

Funny thing is in August 2007 after the Urban Coalition identified the situation and brought it to the attention of Board member Darlene Fisher who championed changes in the MOU process, the Board now ratifies all MOU’s after they consulted their legal counsel. How interesting!

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.