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New Hampshire school board ordered to release sealed meeting minutes discussing former superintendent’s credit card misuse

The New Hampshire Union Leader reports that a New Hampshire state trial court has ordered the Wilton-Lyndeborough Cooperative School District (WLCSD) to release school board meeting minutes containing a discussion of an investigation of former Superintendent Trevor Ebel’s misuse of a district-provided credit card. The court’s ruling was in response to a suit filed by The New Hampshire Union Leader after its request for information under the state’s Right-to-Know Law was denied by WLCSD.

The news organization sought the release of school board meeting minutes and an investigative report written by an independent investigator that the school board hired to look into Mr. Ebel’s credit card use. On April 24, 2012, the school board reviewed the report in a non-public session and then sealed the report and meeting minutes in an envelope that was to be kept undisclosed for 50 years. The school board argued that disclosure would violate Mr. Ebel’s privacy rights or harm his reputation. Additionally, WLCSD feared that disclosure would hinder internal investigations that rely on “honest and candid witness responses” to ensure a thorough investigation.

Judge Kenneth Brown of Hillsborough County Superior Court North ruled that WLCSD must release the minutes, but may redact names of people who cooperated in the investigation to protect confidentiality. Judge Brown explained that because the district had previously released Mr. Ebel’s employment contract and a list of transactions made by Mr. Ebel using the district’s credit card and other information, the order to release the meeting minutes would not significantly interfere with Mr. Ebel’s privacy interest. However, the investigation report was exempt from disclosure.

Mr. Ebel resigned at the April 24 meeting, after the school board reviewed the investigation report. Additionally, the school board reviewed an audit report revealing payroll advances and unreimbursed personal purchases Mr. Edel had made with the credit card. Among the unauthorized expenditures were charges for alcohol, limousines, movies, and meals. Some of the expenses were reimbursed, but about $2,100 remain unaccounted for.

Source: The New Hampshire Union Leader, 6/1/2012, By Tim Buckland

[Editor's Note: In May 2012, Legal Clips summarized a 2-1 decision by a three-judge panel of the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania in Easton Area Sch. Dist. v. The Express Times, which held that the school district had to disclose all emails to and from its school board, the individual members, and the superintendent from a certain time period to the newspaper under the state’s Right-To-Know Law. The panel majority found that the requested emails constitute public records, and the district did not raise all available objections to access when the records request was made.]

Pennsylvania cafeteria workers settle with school district

The Herald reports that cafeteria workers in the Sharpsville Area School District (SASD) were victorious in a dispute with the school district over what they could and could not eat.

According to the settlement, members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) filed a grievance in 2011 which was approved by a unanimous vote of the SASD board on May 21. The grievance was based on the allegation that the school district “violated established past practice” by charging cafeteria workers for food or drinks that could no longer be sold or consumed by students. These items included food or drinks with expired dates or food that had been reheated, none of which can be served to students according to safe food regulations. According to the settlement, the cafeteria employees no longer have to pay to eat or drink expired or reheated items, but they are doing so at their own risk. Additionally, the items cannot be sold or given to any other party, the agreement says. Furthermore, AFSCME members working in the cafeteria must pay for any other á la carte items they consume.

The Board’s solicitor Bob Tesone approved the release of a copy of the three-page settlement resolution this week following an earlier request by The Herald.

Source:  The Herald, 6/10/12, By Joy Leiker

Former teacher with diabetes sues Florida school board

The Daytona Beach News-Journal reports that a former teacher has filed suit in federal court against the Volusia County School Board claiming that it failed to provide the necessary accommodations for him to manage his diabetes on the job. The teacher further claims that the lack of accommodations caused his health to deteriorate, which forced him to take disability retirement in November 2010.

Joseph Siudock, a 57-year-old social studies teacher, has been a teacher since 1985, and most recently worked at Creekside Middle School (CMS) in Port Orange. This is the second suit he has filed against the school board regarding working conditions that did not accommodate his diabetes. His first case was decided in 1997, where a federal judge ruled that the school district was “reasonably” accommodating Siudock’s needs. Siudock also filed a claim in 2005 with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, but that claim was resolved through a settlement reached with the district.

His current claim alleges that school officials harassed and discriminated against him because of his diabetes and his prior EEOC complaint, by assigning him a more rigorous teaching schedule, larger class sizes, and a smaller classroom. These conditions, he claims, made it harder for him to perform physician-ordered blood-sugar tests repeatedly throughout the day, administer his insulin injections, or eat and drink frequently. Further, the school removed Siudock from leadership and club sponsorship positions that allowed him to earn additional money he used to supplement his regular salary.

Siudock also claimed other CMS staff members had encouraged parents to file complaints against him. Though Siudock has received satisfactory overall evaluations, his personnel file also includes notes from administrators dating back as far as 1999 instructing him to discontinue make disparaging comments about students and other staff members. School district records show multiple written complaints from parents about his teaching methods and disparaging comments he made about students between 2007 and 2010.  In response, Siudock says “parents complain all the time. That’s just middle school.”

Michael Dyer, the school district’s chief counsel, declined to comment at that time because school officials have not been served with a copy of the lawsuit.

Source:  The Daytona Beach News-Journal, 6/7/12, By Linda Trimble

[Editor's Note: In October 2011, Legal Clips summarized an article in the Mercury News, which reported that a teacher with diabetes and an anxiety disorder sued the Sequoia Union High School District alleging that school officials failed to provide "reasonable accommodations" for his disability and made his job more difficult to perform. The suit resulted in a settlement, but the settlement amount was kept confidential.]

Mandated anti-bullying policy deadline nears for North Dakota schools

According to the Associated Press (AP), as reported in The Dickinson Press, only about one-third of North Dakota’s school districts have submitted their required anti-bullying policies to the state Department of Public Instruction by the July 1 deadline.

In 2011, the North Dakota legislature mandated that public and private schools have policies in place by July 1, 2012  addressing anti-bullying. Yet, as of June 8, the state Department of Public Instruction had received policies from only 74 of 235 school districts.

“We believe, between the School Boards Association and the department, we have provided resources and training, so there really is no reason why it shouldn’t be done,” said Valerie Fischer, Director of Safe and Healthy Schools for the Education Department.

Rep. RaeAnn Kelsch, R-Mandan, who sponsored the bill in the legislature, said she thinks the reason for the lack of submissions is that districts likely got busy at the end of the school year and put off turning in the policies. She thinks schools will be on board by July 1. “I think that the schools are seeing this [as] something that they need to have in place,” she said. North Dakota School Boards Association Executive Director Jon Martinson said he also thinks schools will meet the deadline. “I think that school districts want to do the right thing,” he said.

The mandate requires schools to explain the policy to students, offer anti-bullying programs to students in grades K-12, and provide training to teachers and administrators about bullying prevention. Fischer said that there is no punishment for schools that do not comply, but the North Dakota Education Department plans to publicize any that do not.

Source:  The Dickinson Press, 6/12/2012, By AP

[Editor's Note: In a December 2011 press release, the U.S. Department of Education released "Analysis of State Bullying Laws and Policies," which summarizes current approaches in 46 states with anti-bullying laws and 41 states that have created anti-bullying policies as models for schools. The report showed that from 1999 to 2010, more than 120 bills were enacted by state legislatures across the country to either introduce or amend statutes that address bullying and related behaviors in schools. Twenty-one new bills were enacted in 2010 and eight additional bills were signed into law through April 30, 2011.

Forty-nine states now have adopted anti-bullying statutes.  NSBA provides charts analyzing the various requirements of these state anti-bullying laws, the way each statute defines bullying, and state model policies and resources on the issue.]

Massachusetts teachers union supports compromise deal on ballot question

The Associated Press (AP) reports on Boston.com that Massachusetts’ largest teachers union and a group behind a proposed ballot question that would change the way teachers are evaluated have agreed on a compromise bill they believe would avoid a costly fight at the ballot box.

The group behind the ballot question, Stand for Children Massachusetts, said the compromise found the new bill would guarantee that every public school in Massachusetts gives priority to a teacher’s effectiveness rather than seniority when deciding who to place and keep in the classroom. The group also said the compromise bill also creates a data reporting system to ensure accountability in the new evaluation system and provides $13 million to school districts to ensure administrators and teachers are properly trained in the new system.

The Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA) helped negotiate the compromise with Stand for Children. MTA President Paul Toner said the new proposed bill narrows the scope of the ballot question, which he said would reduce collective bargaining rights, weaken due process rights for teachers with professional teacher status, and curtail rights for part-time teachers.

“No teacher or union leader wants anything but qualified and excellent instructors in our classrooms,” Toner said. “A ballot fight would be divisive and costly, diverting public attention and resources from narrowing the achievement gap, improving education funding and other priorities to help students succeed.”

Both groups are urging state lawmakers to adopt the newly proposed bill before the July 3 deadline for removing questions from the November statewide ballot.

Jason Williams, Executive Director of Stand for Children Massachusetts, said the bill is “critical for recognizing the work teachers do, guaranteeing a great teacher in every classroom, and closing our state’s wide achievement gap.”

Source:  Boston.com, 6/7/12, By the AP

Federal court rules employer unlawfully retaliated against employee who refused to waive right to file discrimination charge

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) reports that an Illinois federal district court has ruled that Cognis Corporation, a German-based part of a multinational chemical company, unlawfully retaliated against an employee under Title VII for refusing to sign a “last chance” agreement waiving his rights to file a discrimination charge as a condition of continued employment.

In its lawsuit filed in August 2010, EEOC v. Cognis Corp., No. 10-CV-2182 (C.D. Ill.), the EEOC claimed that as a condition of his continued employment, Steven Whitlow, a 19-year employee at an Illinois facility, was required to sign the agreement that prohibited him from filing a discrimination charge with the EEOC – even a charge based on conduct that might occur in the future.  Whitlow initially signed the last-chance agreement, but then later revoked his willingness to be bound by the agreement.  The district court found that when Whitlow refused, Cognis fired him.

The EEOC’s lawsuit also charged that a class of employees who signed similar last-chance agreements was retaliated against  because Cognis forced them to make a choice between termination and signing agreements that stripped them of their right to file charges and seek for future discriminatory conduct – or at least deterred them from doing so.

At the court’s invitation, the EEOC filed a motion for summary judgment in January 2012, asking the court to resolve all issues in the case in the EEOC’s favor, leaving the only issue for trial being the question of what damages are due to Whitlow and the class.  In granting the motion, the district court noted that “[i]t is not often that a plaintiff moves for or is granted summary judgment on a Title VII retaliation claim.”  Yet the court held that no jury could reasonably conclude that Cognis did not unlawfully retaliate against Whitlow when it fired him, and that Cognis’ argument to the contrary “defies simple logic.”

With respect to the class who also signed the agreements, they were not terminated as Whitlow was, so the court denied the EEOC’s summary judgment motion with respect to them, and their claims will proceed to trial.  The court did hold though that a jury could conclude that Cognis engaged in unlawful anticipatory retaliation against the class when it required them to sign the agreements.

John Rowe, the EEOC’s Chicago District Director, said that “[f]iling EEOC charges is a fundamental right of American employees, and this agency always stands ready to protect that right.”  “This court’s opinion should cause employers to remember that seeking to dissuade employees from exercising that right is not only bad policy, it’s a violation of federal law which can give rise to very substantial liability.”

Source:  EEOC press release , 5/29/12, EEOC.gov

[Editor's Note:  Though the facts and the entities of this case do not include school districts, but a private company, the Title VII analysis in this retaliation case is equally applicable to school districts since they are also employers that have their employees sign employment contracts.]

Education Department opens the Race to the Top competition to individual districts

The Associated Press (AP) reports that the U.S. Department of Education (ED) has announced that it is opening its Race to the Top (RTTT) competition to individual school districts. Local districts will be able to compete for $400 million in grants to bring the initiative to the classroom level. According to ED, school districts with at least 2,500 students and having 40% or more students qualifying for free or reduced price lunch will be eligible to receive up to $25 million to create plans targeting specific groups of students with the aim of closing the achievement gap.

A number of states have already reaped billions in RTTT funds to implement educational reforms the administration favors. To qualify for a slice of the funds, many states have changed laws, creating new evaluation systems that tie teacher assessments to student performance, and lifting caps on the number of charter schools permitted. Congress approved $550 million for the new competition in this budget year. The bulk of the money will be for the district-level grants. About $133 million will go to states that were close to winning ED’s early learning challenge.

ED will evaluate a school district’s commitment to four core areas: adopting standards and assessments that prepare students for college and the workplace; building data systems to measure student growth and using the figures to help teachers become better instructors; building an effective cadre of teachers; and turning around low-performing schools. Among the proposed eligibility criteria is an evaluation of a district’s school board by the 2014-15 school year. The evaluation would look at feedback from stakeholders and student outcomes.

Reggie Felton, assistant executive director for the National School Boards Association, noted that most school board members are elected officials, and cautioned against creating a process that essentially functions as a second election. Overall, however, he said the competition would be positive particularly for districts in states that did not win before. “Historically only the states had the options to apply for federal funds, and if a state didn’t there was no alternative for a school district that had a great idea,” Felton said. “Local districts do now have an opportunity.”

Source:  AP, 5/22/12, By Christine Armario

[Editor's Note: ED's press release announced expansion of the RTTT competition to individual school districts:

As proposed, applicants will be selected based on their vision and capacity for reform as well as a strong plan that provides classrooms and teachers with the resources to prepare students for college and career. Districts must effectively engage and collaborate with teachers, parents and outside organizations to create their plan and provide assistance to ensure a successful transition to proposed reforms. Plans will focus on transforming instruction so that it meets all students' learning abilities. Teachers will track and receive real-time data and information that helps them adapt their lessons and individualize instruction to accommodate the differences among their students.

According to ED's proposed criteria for the new competition, known as The Race to the Top District competition (RTT-D), RTT-D will build on the lessons learned from the state-level competitions and support bold, locally directed improvements in teaching and learning that will directly improve student achievement and teacher effectiveness.

RTTT is not confined to the K-12 level. In December 2011, Legal Clips summarized an AP article in The Washington Post, which reported that nine states, California, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Ohio, Rhode Island and Washington, would share $500 million in grant money won in a high-profile competition for innovative efforts in often-overlooked pre-K schooling.]

Federal court issues injunction against Michigan law prohibiting payroll deductions of school employees’ union dues

The Detroit News reports that the Michigan Education Association (MEA) has obtained a preliminary injunction from a federal district court barring enforcement of a state law that prohibits local school districts from deducting union dues from school employees’ paychecks. Though U.S. District Court Judge Denise Page Hood ruled that law was likely to be found unconstitutional, the court’s ruling only delays enforcement of the law until there is decision on the merits of MEA’s  claim that the law is unconstitutional. 

The MEA was joined in its lawsuit by the American Federation of Teachers-Michigan; the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 25; and Service Employees International Union Local 517. The unions alleges the law violates the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, and charge that the law was passed to punish school employees for exercising their free speech rights in calling for a constitutional amendment to protect collective bargaining rights in the state. The unions also argue the act violates the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution because it treats school employees differently than other classifications of workers without reason.

The federal suit is the second lawsuit filed over the legislation. In April 2012, Ingham County Circuit Judge Clinton Canady III ruled that the law, along with two other laws, can’t take effect until next year because of procedural errors in how House Republicans pushed the bills through. The Michigan Court of Appeals halted Canady’s injunction and the House Democrats’ lawsuit against the majority party Republicans over the issue of how quickly new laws take effect remains in the courts.

The law makes bargaining about the deduction of union dues illegal for school districts. Districts that include payroll deductions in their union contracts can continue the practice until the contract expires. When the legislation was being debated, Republicans defeated an amendment to let unions reimburse school districts for the cost of deducting dues from paychecks. House Speaker Jase Bolger stands by the constitutionality and intent of the law says Bolger spokesman Ari Adler.  “Schools should not be serving as collection agencies between unions and their members,” added Adler.

Source:  The Detroit News, 6/4/12, By Jennifer Chambers; Karen Bouffard and Chad Livengood contributors

[Editor's Note: In MEA's press release announcing the injunction, the union stated that the court granted the preliminary injunction because the judge believed there was a substantial likelihood of success on the merits of the arguments presented by the unions, and that unions and their members would suffer irreparable harm if the injunction was not issued.

In October 2011, Legal Clips summarized an Associated Press article in Bloomberg Businessweek, which reported that the Michigan Senate was then considering the so-called “right to teach”bill (SB 729) that MEA opposed. The proposed legislation would have prohibited public schools from requiring employees to pay union dues or fees as a condition of employment.]

School funding suit claims Kansas’ education budget cuts are unconstitutional

The Associated Press (AP) reports on hutchnews.com that Attorney Alan Rupe says more than $500 million in education cuts have left Kansas public schools so underfunded that the state no longer meets its obligations to students and public school districts under the state constitution. Rupe, representing 32 students and 54 school districts in the school funding suit filed in 2010, charges that the state has reneged on its promises to adequately fund public education.

In his opening statement to the Shawnee County District Court, Rupe said, “The kids that are disadvantaged in Kansas don’t have to be.” He added that providing quality education to all “has been done when there have been resources to do it.” Rupe contends schools and teachers had been making progress in improving student performance and reducing achievement gaps until the state started to reduce spending on public schools three years ago, stunting those efforts.

The state contends that current funding levels are constitutional and the legislature has the right to set funding levels based on available state revenues. Attorney Arthur Chalmers, who was hired by Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt’s office to represent the state, said legislators took necessary steps to maintain education funding while dealing with a struggling economy in recent years. He said legislators didn’t “arbitrarily” target schools for spending reductions. “The state’s doing the best it can in difficult times,” Chalmers said. “When the dust settles and the case is over, we think you will be able to say the Legislature had a reasonable basis.”

It is the second time in a decade that the Kansas school finance formula has been subject to judicial scrutiny. The last dispute resulted in legislators increasing school spending by nearly $1 billion, but state lawmakers began cutting back that funding when state revenues declined, and eventually school districts and parents filed the new lawsuit to compel the state to restore that funding. Any decision in the case will almost certainly be appealed to the Kansas Supreme Court.

Source:  hutchnews.com, 6/4/12, By AP

[Editor's Note: In March 2011, Legal Clips summarized an article in the Johnson County Sun News, which reported that a U.S. District Court in Kansas had dismissed a lawsuit filed by Shawnee Mission parents that had challenged the constitutionality of a cap on the local option budget. The district court said that the cap could be removed from the rest of Kansas’ statutory public school funding system.

On a related note, The Post and Courier reported on June 5, 2012 that the South Carolina Supreme Court has broken a nearly four-year silence on the state’s landmark school funding lawsuit, Abbeville County School District (ACSD) vs. State of South Carolina, but the justices don’t appear to be any closer to making a decision. Not having said a word since oral arguments in 2008, the Court issued an order on May 23, 2012 directing attorneys to prepare to re-argue the case this fall. NSBA filed an amicus brief in the suit in support of ACSD and the other school districts challenging the adequacy of the state's funding of public education.]

Parents sue school district for putting child in dark seclusion room for punishment

The Associated Press (AP) reports in The Republic that parents of a kindergarten student in central Kentucky have filed a $5 million lawsuit for putting their daughter into a dark, padded room with one window and a chair for timeout as punishment. Matthew and Lindsay Lucas filed the suit against Clark County Public Schools (CCPS), claiming that the timeout punishment has caused their daughter, a student at Fannie Bush Elementary School, mental and emotional suffering, nervousness, and anxiety. In addition to the monetary damages claimed, the suit seeks to ban CCPS from using such seclusion rooms.

Clark County Superintendent Elaine Farris told The Winchester Sun that the district has not received anything concerning the lawsuit.

Mrs. Lucas says she didn’t learn about the use of a seclusion room for punishment until a week after the incident. While picking her child up from the school’s after-school program, her daughter asked if she would like to see where she went for time out. The child proceeded to show her mother a classroom, and then a small connected room.

In response to learning where his daughter was placed for timeout, Mr. Lucas contacted Fannie Bush Principal Angela Taylor who told him that “the room was a place for kids to think about what they had done,” and that his daughter was not forced into the room, and that it was being watched by a teacher.

The Lucas family moved from Clark County to a school district in another county after the incident.

Source: The Republic, 6/1/12, By AP

[Editor's Note: In March 2012, Legal Clips summarized an article in Education Week, which reported that the U.S. Department of Education (ED) had collected data showing that, nationwide, school employees use isolation (seclusion) and restraint techniques disproportionately on disabled students, especially disabled African-American students. ED had surveyed more than 72,000 public schools, asking how many students had been isolated or restrained for the purpose of keeping them from harming themselves, classmates, or school employees. Although seclusion and restraint are primarily associated with special education, the data show those techniques are being used on all students.]

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