If you live in Austintown, you’re no doubt familiar with the ongoing battle between schools Superintendent Vincent Colaluca and board of education member Harold Porter. Thus, the question: Why was it necessary for the board to meet behind closed doors to discuss the situation, in possible violation of the state’s open meetings law?
The filing of a police report detailing allegations of bullying and unwanted remarks is not justification for secrecy.
Indeed, given that the report is a public record, the he said-he said claims of the clash Oct. 22 between Colaluca and Porter were publicized by The Vindicator. Therefore, the school board would be hard-pressed to argue that the closed-door meeting last week falls under the exceptions to Ohio’s Sunshine Law.
The news release announcing the executive session Thursday was notable in its vagueness. It said the closed-door meeting was necessary to consider “employment of a public employee, the investigation of charges or complaints against a public employee/official and to confer with an attorney for the board concerning disputes involving the board that are subject of pending or imminent court action.”
The public employee is, of course, the superintendent, as the police report makes clear. The public official is Porter, and the dispute between the two was detailed in a Vindicator story Friday.
Thus, we are baffled by the need for secrecy.
We would urge members of the board of education to pay close attention to one of the foremost legal experts on public access laws, Atty. David Marburger of the Cleveland law firm of BakerHostetler, who had this reaction to the executive session:
“I’m very skeptical that the Legislature intended that all the members of an elected public body can convene a closed session to investigate a complaint against one of those members — who is also one of those conducting the purported investigation. … Interpreting the Sunshine Law to allow that is ludicrous.”
Both Colaluca and Porter attended the Thursday session.
Marburger questions how the board can investigate the dueling complaints when it would have the final say on the superintendent’s continued employment.
And, the Sunshine Law makes it clear that the board has no authority to investigate a complaint against a member.
Marburger, who has authored a handbook on open access laws called “Access with Attitude” and is also The Vindicator’s lawyer, raised the issue of due process for Superintendent Colaluca, considering that the board is conducting its own investigation to decide if punishment is warranted.
Seeing as how one of their colleagues is a party to the clash, board members should have distanced themselves from the case and brought in an independent investigator.
Rather than try to finesse the situation, the school board should have responded to the Colaluca-Porter dust-up by adopting a policy that says there will be no bullying by adults in the school system.
After all, if they want to end bullying and other anti-social behavior by students, board members would do well to use the superintendent and their colleague for a show-and-tell program.