Without debate, the Columbus Board of Education on May 7 decided to use $870,000 of its general-education funds to pay off a debt to National Public Radio secretly run up by by the district's public radio station WCBE.
The transfer was approved as part of a 7-0 "consent agenda" omnibus vote that approved dozens of district initiatives. A background memo from Scott Varner, the district's executive director of strategic communications who oversees WCBE (90.5-FM), to Superintendent Talisa Dixon notes that "the board may be asked again to supplement the station's budget through the general fund."
The station was thought to be self-supporting through fund-raising drives, but district officials learned earlier this year that NPR, which provides WCBE its national news programming, had been accepting partial payments from WCBE general manager Dan Mushalko on what the district owed it for years -- a debt that never appears on any of the station's state-mandated financial audits.
"That was the recommendation of the administration" to pay NPR out of general-fund dollars, board President Gary Baker said following the vote.
Asked how the board would respond to using local and state money earmarked for teaching students to pay off a debt of a radio station, Baker replied: "I am pleased that the district is able to continue to provide a valuable community service through WCBE."
The Dispatch reported that Ohio State University had hired former Columbus Mayor Michael B. Coleman with a plan to merge the university's public station, WOSU, with WCBE, thereby knocking WCBE out of the news business and having it focus solely on playing music. But Baker said the board never entertained any merger as a way to relieve the debt, noting that no proposal was ever brought directly to the school board.
"The board, as I recall, did not contemplate that," Baker said.
Ohio State and Coleman never brought a proposal to the board, instead negotiating with a nonprofit formed by Don McTigue, an attorney who worked for Coleman's campaign. On the same day in late January that WCBE's Mushalko informed Varner and district officials of the NPR debt, the district received a letter from McTigue's entity, WCBE Ohio, offering to pay off the entire debt in return for control of the station.
Baker said the board was never aware of the negotiations between Coleman, OSU and McTigue. Coleman did not return telephone calls about why the board wasn't a part of negotiations.
Mushalko is on paid suspension pending the outcome of an internal audit. The Columbus Dispatch reported in March that by mid-2018, the total amount owed to NPR hit at least $908,800 and Mushalko began submitting invoices supposedly created by NPR with 2018 dates, but which account statements show had invoice numbers related to ones created in 2014 and 2015.
It's unclear how or why that happened. Mushalko has declined to comment.