Lawsuit contends Ohio school district hired interim superintendent without proper notice

OHIO — A mother sued her sons’ Ohio school district last week after the Board of Education voted for an interim superintendent without adequate notice to the public.

Valerie Naughton’s lawsuit against the Board of Education of Kings Local School District in Kings Mills, Ohio, states the special meeting held to discuss finding a new superintendent ended with the board selecting one, in violation of state law. The lawsuit seeks an injunction to put the hiring on hold.

During special meetings, which are any meetings outside of regularly scheduled ones, the board must stick to the agenda released at least 24 hours before. In this case, the board said in its agenda that the special meeting was intended to “hear presentations from Superintendent search firms,” then to select a search firm to conduct the search. The agenda also notes an executive session scheduled to discuss “the appointment, employment, dismissal, discipline, promotion, demotion or compensation of a public employee or official.”

A letter from the district’s treasurer to the board president included in the lawsuit said the meeting was “to discuss the Superintendent search, meet with search firms and any other matters that may come before the board.”

It’s the final clause that could decide this case, said attorney Jack Greiner, who teaches media law at University of Cincinnati College of Law. Greiner is a participant in the Student Press Law Center’s attorney referral network.

“That’s going to be the question, I think,” he said. “Is the decision to hire an interim superintendent within the realm of a superintendent search?”

The second part of Naughton’s suit accuses three of the board’s five members of conspiring to vote for the interim superintendent before the meeting.

Naughton’s attorney, Konrad Kircher, said members William Russell, Robert Hinman and Kim Grant misled the other two board members and the public by not saying they intended to hold a vote during the meeting.

Under Ohio law, a majority of board members are not allowed to have a secret, prearranged meeting where they discuss board matters, Greiner said. But determining whether a meeting was prearranged is going to be the tricky part.

“If they just walked into a room and one of them said, “I think he would be a good candidate,” and the other two agreed, that could be harder to prove,” he said.

The lawsuit states that by the board members “conspiring”, the public wasn’t able to have input.

Speaking generally, Dennis Hetzel, the executive director of the Ohio Newspaper Association, said the public should be aware when decisions like these will be made.

“This is the kind of business that surely should be done in public,” Hetzel said. “I can’t think of a more consequential decision for the public than who your school superintendent is going to be. “

Grant and Hinman didn’t respond to requests for comment. Russell said the school’s attorney, William Deters, advised him not to talk about the suit. He said Deters believes the vote was appropriate and legal.

In an email, Deters said he doesn’t comment on pending litigation.

The other board members, Todd Overturf and Bonnie Baker-Hicks, backed a motion to hold another vote during the board’s regularly scheduled meeting last week. That motion was voted down 3-2, according to reports in The Cincinnati Enquirer.

Kircher said he had a phone conference Monday morning with Deters, who was “very cooperative.” They scheduled a meeting to discuss the preliminary injunction on July 28 and the magistrate indicated he would have a decision by July 31, when the interim superintendent’s position is set to become effective, he said.

The school board will be meeting with Deters on Wednesday, Kircher said.

“It’s possible at any time between now and then that they could revoke the action and they could reschedule and do it right,” Kircher said. “I’m sure that’s an option they’ll be discussing tomorrow night.”

Contact Kass by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 126.