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Published: Friday, 12/15/2006

TPS critic sees conflict of interest by board's Steel

BY IGNAZIO MESSINA
BLADE STAFF WRITER

The co-president of the Toledo chapter of Parents for Public Schools, a longtime critic of Toledo Public Schools, is asking the Board of Education to determine if one of its own members has a conflict of interest because his wife is a teacher with strong union ties.

Steven Flagg, a local education activist for more than a decade, announced yesterday that he sent a letter to the board asking if member Steven Steel can vote on collective bargaining agreements with the Toledo Federation of Teachers union and what, if any, role he should have in contract negotiations.

Mr. Steel's wife, Catherine Hernandez, is a TPS teacher who was on the union's board of directors but resigned upon his election in November, 2005.

Mr. Flagg's been trying to learn if Mr. Steel gets health benefits from the school district through his wife. Mr. Steel has declined to release what he calls his "wife's personal information."

"Right now, we have been unable to get it because [Mr.] Steel has refused or ignored," Mr. Flagg said. "We disagree that it is a protected record under HIPAA."

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, known as HIPAA, enacted in 1996, is a federal law intended to protect the disclosure of personal medical information.

If Mr. Steel does receive the health insurance, he would not be permitted under Ohio law to vote on the teachers' contract.

Officials for the district and union said Tuesday they had agreed to extend their contract with no changes in wages or benefits through March 31, 2008. If approved by the board, it will be the third straight yearly extension for the contract.

Mr. Flagg admitted since there will be no negotiations, the whole issue could be moot if Mr. Steel abstains when the matter comes before the board.

"If he abstains, there is no problem," Mr. Flagg said. "However, the fact that so many issues in the district involve the working conditions and benefits of Toledo Public teachers, we want to board to go a step further and determine what role Ms. Hernandez has with the Toledo Federation of Teachers."

Mr. Steel yesterday said Mr. Flagg's actions border on harassment since he has dogged him for the health insurance information for more than a month, made similar conflict of interest claims since his campaign for office, and even questioned the placement of his daughter at Grove Patterson Academy, a district magnet school.

"There is some other agenda here, and I fear it has risen to the level of harassing my family members," Mr. Steel said. "As a candidate of integrity, I sought out advice from the Ohio Ethics Commission so I'd know what [would be] potential conflict of interest, and that's the reason Kathy stepped down from a [union] leadership position."

Mr. Steel added: "If I am covered under a collective bargaining agreement, then I cannot vote on it, and would not when the vote comes up."

Board of Education President Darlene Fisher, who is a founding member of the local Parents for Public Schools chapter, would not say if she thought Mr. Steel had a conflict of interest.

"I think it would be in the best interest of the board to double check that," she said.

Board Vice President Deborah Barnett and member Larry Sykes both said Mr. Steel is a man of integrity and that he would do the right thing.

Mr. Sykes said Mr. Flagg "is making personal attacks. This is not professional, it's personal."

Board member Robert Torres did not return a phone call seeking comment.

Ms. Barnett, Mr. Sykes, and Mr. Steel formed a coalition named "3 for Children" to create a majority against Ms. Fisher and Mr. Torres, both of whom Mr. Flagg supported.

Contact Ignazio Messina at:

imessina@theblade.com

or 419-724-6171.



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