COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - The state watchdog has found that Ohio's leading education official was on the payroll of a Texas-based standardized testing firm when he lobbied state lawmakers last year on a bill that benefited the company.
In a report released Thursday, Inspector General Randall Meyer urged the Ohio Board of Education to consider disciplinary action against Superintendent Stan Heffner.
Meyer's investigation found Heffner already had a signed employment agreement with Princeton, N.J.-based Educational Testing Service's San Antonio office in May 2011, when he advocated use of the company's tests in written testimony submitted to an Ohio Senate committee. Heffner was then interim superintendent, later rejecting the ETS job to stay on in the Ohio role permanently.
Heffner was the state school board's surprise pick for the top job at the Ohio Department of Education last July following a national search, declaring at the time, "A funny thing happened on my way to Texas."
In required post-employment paperwork, Heffner had listed his ETS start date as Aug. 1, 2011. However, the investigation found the agreement was signed that April, before he testified.
The inspector general's probe found that beyond lobbying inappropriately for ETS, Heffner used his state email and cellphone to pursue the Texas job.
He also directed his executive secretary at the state Education Department to mail his employment application to ETS, schedule related travel to Texas - as well as to South Dakota, where he pursued a separate position - and later to handle paperwork related to selling his Westerville home and buying a new house in Texas, the report said.
Debe Terhar, who chairs the state school board, said she was disturbed by the investigation's findings and expects the board to act on Meyer's request for review at its monthly meeting in September. The 19-member panel selected by a combination of election and appointment oversees him.
"Stan Heffner is a dedicated educator who is committed to the education reforms Ohio needs for our children, but in this matter he demonstrated a woeful lack of judgment," she said in a statement.
Heffner issued a public apology after the report was released and said he was willing to accept any punishment the board deemed necessary.
"I was wrong and I'm sorry for my lack of judgment," he said. "I've apologized to my staff, my friends and colleagues at the Department, and the Board. I have learned from my mistakes."
Heffner's testimony before lawmakers supported legislation that would result in an increase in testing of Ohio's school teachers, work worth about $2.2 million for ETS. New tests were to be part of the federal Race to the Top education improvement program.
ETS is the nation's largest private, nonprofit educational testing and research firm. Meyer's report said that ETS' longstanding relationship with Ohio's Education Department, and its expectation that it would have a role in the development of the new national tests, didn't excuse Heffner for failing to disclose his relationship with the firm before testifying.
Ohio Democrat Chairman Chris Redfern suggested that the report "raises more questions than it answers," and called for a criminal investigation. He criticized Meyer for not referring the matter to prosecutors based on the evidence contained in the report.
Heffner's inappropriate lobbying was first reported by the liberal political blog Plunderbund, which referred the information to the Ohio Ethics Commission. Meyers was asked to investigate by Democrat state Rep. Debbie Phillips, who said she finds Thursday's finding, coupled with a separate pending ethics investigation regarding reimbursement of Heffner and staff for trips, troubling.
"At a time when local schools are facing significant cuts in state resources and many are seeking local (tax increases) to provide opportunities for our children, we need to ensure that all state funds are being spent wisely and appropriately," she said.
The state Education Department became the subject of an unrelated state auditor's investigation last week over potential lack of oversight surrounding manipulation of attendance data by several Ohio school districts.