Liberty schools weigh pursuit of settlement claim

By Robert Guttersohn


Settlement money still owed to the Liberty school district from its former conversion schools leaves a cash-strapped district weighing the cost and gains of pursuing the payment.

In September, the district and Liberty Early Academic Resource Nest and Liberty Exemplary Academic Design agreed to the settlement, allowing the two schools to operate under new sponsorship.

Part of the settlement included an initial payment of $250,000 from LEARN and LEAD to the district, which was paid.

The dispute is over an additional $100,000 the district claims is owed, something the conversion- schools officials deny.

According to the settlement, the money is to be paid to the district within a year of the settlement or by Dec. 31, 2011, if LEARN and LEAD “fail to continue as community schools, duly sponsored by an entity other than” the Liberty school board.

In September, the school district lifted the suspension of the conversion schools, which it imposed in June. Portage County Educational Service Center picked up the sponsorship and suspended them Oct. 17 for not enrolling at least 25 students, a state requirement, and for using an “unauthorized facility.”

Cheryl Emrich, executive director of Portage ESC, said Friday the schools still are suspended and were to “cease operations.”

Paul Preston, an education consultant at the Ohio Department of Education’s Office of Community Schools, said the schools are not receiving any federal or state funding.

Preston added they are not authorized to educate children.

It is unclear if LEARN still is conducting classes. But in October, the Chippewa school district in Doyles-town, Ohio, lost 13 students to LEARN, said David Fischer, the superintendent.

Fischer said half of those students returned to the district before Christmas break, while the other half applied for home schooling.

To Liberty officials, this means the schools are no longer viable community schools, and the money must be paid.

“I look for three things: students, a place and are they sanctioned by the Ohio Department of Education,” said Liberty board of education President Joe Nohra. “I don’t see any of those things.”

The conversion schools’ attorney Allen Jones declined to comment for this article.

With the Liberty district being in fiscal emergency, Liberty officials are not sure whether pursuing the money via litigation is a good option.

“We don’t even know if they have $100,000,” said Stan Watson, Liberty superintendent. “It’s a risk-reward thing.”

The district’s attorney, John Britton, said when the settlement was negotiated before September, those at the table knew Portage ESC was interested in the sponsorship and did not anticipate they would suspend LEARN and LEAD before the end of the year.

Britton has not met officially with Liberty school officials, but he is writing up a formal claim letter to LEARN and LEAD.

“If they’re not going to be in the business of educating students, [the money] should return to Liberty,” Britton said.

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