Four Olentangy school board members denied wrongdoing after fellow board member Adam White filed suit claiming they violated Ohio’s open-meetings laws with a series of phone calls and emails last fall.
On Thursday, April 25, White filed suit through the Delaware County Court of Common Pleas against board members Kevin O’Brien, Stacy Dunbar, Julie Wagner Feasel and Dave King.
The lawsuit states a series of messages exchanged by those board members in October – an exchange that excluded White – constitutes an illegal private meeting under Ohio law.
The law in question defines a meeting “as any prearranged discussion of the public business of the public body by a majority of its members.” It states public business must be conducted in open meetings unless the subject matter is specifically excepted by law.
In the lawsuit, White said the email exchange qualifies as a meeting under the law. He asks for $500 and to be recouped for court costs and attorney fees.
But in a written statement released early April 25, White said the lawsuit is “not about the money.”
“It’s about forcing the Olentangy school board to follow the open-meetings law,” White wrote. “Public discussion on these matters is critical. I will not stand by while this board conducts public business behind closed doors.”
The accused board members responded to the allegation at an evening meeting April 25, voting 4-1 to pass a resolution denying they violated the law.
The resolution, drafted by board President Kevin O’Brien, stated the board won’t specifically comment on pending litigation.
In an interview Friday, April 26, O’Brien added: “I think it’s unfortunate that Adam feels that the way to communicate with the board is through the courts.”
White said that, in October, board members launched a “public relations” campaign to defend a board policy requiring all future communication between board members and district staff to first pass through the treasurer or superintendent.
The policy reads: “All official communications, policies and directives of the board of staff interest and concern to the staff will generally be communicated through the superintendent and/or treasurer as appropriate, who shall also keep staff members informed of the board’s concerns and actions.”
It was passed at a Sept. 25 board meeting, with White casting the sole vote against. He argued the rule limits board members from obtaining information necessary to be good stewards of taxpayer money.
After an editorial was published by The Columbus Dispatch criticizing the policy, the other board members used email to cooperatively draft a written response, which was published in the Oct. 27 issue of The Dispatch.
Board members defended the policy, arguing it’s necessary to avoid inundating teachers and staff. They agreed the superintendent and treasurer, both appointed by the school board and actively engaged with day-to-day district business, are best-equipped to funnel questions and concerns to the correct staff members and deter micromanagement.
O’Brien said the policy doesn’t actually block board members from engaging in “casual contact” with staff, and suggested the maximum disciplinary action for violating the policy might be a “firm talking-to.”
In one email, Dunbar alleges that in his role as a “watchdog,” White has engaged teachers about “silly” matters such as questioning a principal about why elementary students couldn’t wear costumes to a fall festival held at school.
Regardless, the board deserves public rebuke, said Dennis Hetzel, executive director of the Ohio Newspaper Association, a state trade group that represents Ohio newspapers.
“The law itself is murky on the use of e-mail to deliberate. But it appears here that, at some point, these e-mail exchanges stopped being unexpected and unsolicited, and the majority actually was using electronic mail to deliberate,” Hetzel wrote in an email.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt that the board has violated the spirit of the law if these allegations are correct, and I hope the court also finds that there was an actual violation.”
Since his election in 2011, White frequently has butted heads with other school officials. Last year, he hired a bodyguard to attend board meetings after he said Superintendent Wade Lucas threatened him, a charge the superintendent and other board members denied.