The majority of the taxpayers of Warren County, specifically the Lebanon City School District taxpayers, probably believe that their hard earned money is being used to educate our children. People want to believe that the primary consideration of “their” government schools really is in the best interests of “the children.” Nothing could be further from the truth.
Does anyone know about the case of the school district going after a taxpayer and mother of Lebanon students? The case proves that the Lebanon school board and the superintendent do not want the public to know what they are doing with your tax dollars.
The “Ohio Sunshine Law” or the “Ohio Public Records Act” is summarized as follows, “The Ohio Public Records Act is built on centuries of American legal tradition that the records of government are “the people’s records.” The Public Records Act provides the public with procedures to request records from any public office in Ohio, while protecting certain specific types of records from release. It also establishes a legal process to enforce compliance when a requester feels that a public office has failed to satisfy its public records obligations.
The “ Ohio Open Meetings Act” requires public bodies in Ohio to conduct all public business in open meetings that the public may attend and observe. This means that if a public body is meeting to discuss and decide public business, the meeting must be open to the public.
A little history is relevant to the saga of how the Lebanon School Board reacts to citizens attending their meetings. The venue for the meetings was changed to a “room” at Holbrook Elementary. Previously the meetings were held in a large conference room at the high school. This room had audio-visual equipment, long tables and plenty of space. The small space now used curtails the number of people that can attend the meetings.
Secondly the minutes used to be kept verbatim. Donna Davis-Norris made a motion to cut the minutes down to a rephrasing system that was general and basically covered the topic.
The board rarely discusses, in depth, any policy, purchase, or levy in public. Usually the vote is 5 – 0 with very little discussion. One would have to conclude that these expenditures are discussed privately.
The case of the parent is as follows.
On January 17, 2011 the parent attended a “Special Meeting” held by the school board. She was the only “member of the public” attending this meeting. The purpose of the meeting was to review a presentation by a hired consultant from “Strategic Visioning, Inc.” (I will report on this report in another essay.) The company had called 400 people to obtain the opinions of the community pertaining to a new levy proposal.
At this meeting the superintendent walked up to the mother and asked her to leave the room or he could escort her to the exit. The board had decided to go into “Executive Session” and the public would not be allowed.
“Certain” people were invited into this meeting. The mother felt threatened by the attitude and demeanor of the superintendent and left.
The “Executive Session” was not announced until the board saw a member of the public (a taxpayer and mother of students) in attendance. It was pretty obvious that the board did not want the lady to know what was being discussed.
The board is obligated to approve the minutes to their last meeting at the next meeting. Often requested minutes are not “available.”
The parent retained legal expertise and took the complaint to the local court. As is usually the case, with school issues, that local court ruled in favor of the district.
The mother subsequently appealed her case to the Twelfth District Court of Appeals. That court ruled in favor of the parent and against “the district.” The district refused to accept the verdict and appealed the case to the Ohio Supreme Court. The Supreme Court of Ohio ruled in favor of the parent and thus against the “policies” of the LCSD.
Some of the points of the case discuss that the parent requested minutes of the January 17, 2011 meeting on January 25, 2011. The treasurer did not respond to her request until March 22, 2011. He told her that the minutes to the “Special Meeting” were not taken and were not available. He called the meeting a “workshop.” The treasurer later testified that the meeting was not recorded with their audio equipment. The meeting was recorded with “notes” that were not approved until April 18, 2011 – three months later.
The court said, “We consider all of the issues raised in this appeal mindful that public records are the people’s records, and the custodians of those records are merely trustees for the people.” “One of the strengths of American government is the right of the public to know and understand the actions of their elected representatives.” “This includes not merely the right to know a government body’s final decision on a matter, but the ways and means by which those decisions were reached.”
The open meetings act of R.C. 121.22 provides that the statute shall be liberally construed to require public official to take official action and to conduct all deliberations upon official business only in open meetings unless the subject matter is specifically excepted by law. R.C. 121.22 (A). All meetings of any public body are declared to be public meetings open to the public at all times, and the minutes of a regular or special meeting of any public body shall be promptly prepared, filed, and maintained and shall be open to public inspection. R.C. 211.22 (C).
Further in the court’s decision was the fact that an Ohio school board was removed for nonfeasance with regard to a number of matters or grounds. The were removed for alleged gross neglect of duty, misfeasance, malfeasance and the trial court found that board had violated the open meetings act and the public records act when it delayed formally approving meeting minutes.
Executive Sessions are only allowed for seven specific purposes, R.C. 121.22 (G). These are:
1. The appointment, employment, dismissal, discipline, promotion, demotion, or compensation of a public employee or official, or the investigation of charges or complaints against a public employee.
2. The purchase or sale of property for public purposes.
3. Conferences with an attorney for the public body concerning disputes involving the public bod that are the subject of pending or imminent court action.
4. Preparing for, conducting, or reviewing negotiations with public employees concerning their compensation or other terms and conditions of their employment.
5. Matters required to be kept confidential by federal law or regulations or state statutes.
6. Details relative to the security arrangements and emergency response.
7. Issues involving a county hospital.
The minutes of the meeting of January 17, 2011 stated purpose was to “discuss negotiations with public employees.” But, the superintendent asked the board to enter into an executive session to discuss “time lines.” He also stated that no board action would be taken.
The Lebanon City School Board seems to prefer to carry on the public’s business in relative secrecy. I have attended the board meetings for several years and found our representatives on the board unwilling to openly answer any questions. This forces the taxpayer to dig and delve into reams of papers to find an answer to a simple question. I'm of the belief that they hope no one will bother to take the time to read and translate all of these documents.
Maybe even they do not know the answers to any financial question or they don’t want us to know what they are doing with our tax dollars. My conclusion is that they DON’T WANT US TO KNOW. Although I do have an opinion on the intellect of some of them.
This board is willing to take a parent to the Ohio Supreme Court in order to keep her out of a meeting. They had other people in that meeting that had no right to “negotiations.” The survey taker was even invited.
Imagine the money, time and effort that was taken from school business to take this case to the highest court in Ohio. The district can spend as much money as it wishes against parents and taxpayers. After all, it is not their money – it is our money. That was money that we intended to produce literate American citizens.
In my opinion, the Lebanon school board should have been removed a long time ago. A court case should not have to take place just to prove the way the Lebanon school board treats members of the public. It is evident that they are willing to spend hundreds of thousands of your tax dollars against anyone that tries to expose their actions and the way they spend your tax dollars.
Some of us did manage to expose their abuse of power. At that time the treasurer, superintendent, cafeteria director, athletic director and others escaped from prosecution and full exposure by leaving. The board allowed this to happen. Sadly one of those board members still sits on the board.
Jackson Hedges, Katie Poitinger, Orville Robinson and Lee Wiederhold are no longer on the board. (Poitinger, Robinson and Wiederhold are teachers) The other member, Donna Davis Norris is working for SWOCA (a school supported consortium) and her husband was the president of the teacher’s union. So, at least four members of the board had some loyalty to the teacher’s union and not the taxpayers, students or parents.
Anyone that attends a board meeting can quickly ascertain that Ms. Norris is pretty much in charge. The current board does not welcome “we the people” to their meetings. We are the people that pay the bills, but any questions are not wanted. They limit a “member of the public” to three minutes at the beginning of the board meeting. That is before the board discusses a subject on the agenda. They never answer your question. The standard response is, “We’ll get back to you.” They never do. At least, I don’t know of anyone getting a response from a board member.
I do thank and support the parent that had the courage to take her case to the court system. It was an extremely brave action on her part. After all she had children in the Lebanon school system. The district has the power to take action against her children and her family.
I do not mention her name because I do respect her privacy.
My questions for the people think about are: “What are they hiding?”
“Why are they willing to be so openly hostile to the people of Lebanon?” “Why doesn't the local newspaper report the facts?”