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Couple again loses request for legal fees in fight with Lowellville schools

YOUNGSTOWN — A magistrate again has ruled against a Lowellville couple’s attempt to get Lowellville Local Schools to pay legal fees for the lawsuit the couple filed against the school district.

The suit, filed by Christopher and Gina Crilley, resulted in magistrate Tim Welsh and the judge he works for, R. Scott Krichbaum of Mahoning County Common Pleas Court, finding that the school district committed an open meetings act violation. The board of education held a meeting Aug. 10, 2020, that resulted in a vote to back the superintendent’s decision to switch to remote-only learning for the first nine weeks of that school year.

But Welsh and Krichbaum refused to order the school district to pay the Crilleys’ legal fees, instead ordering the school district to pay the couple $500 in damages.

Welsh’s ruling this month stated that he had reviewed the matter using a “two-part statutory test” set forth in Ohio law to determine whether the Crilleys were entitled to have their attorney fees reimbursed.

RATIONALE

The 7th District Court of Appeals sent its earlier ruling back to Welsh and Krichbaum, ordering them to show their “rationale” for not awarding attorney fees. Specially, it required them to review their decision using the two-part test.

In order to find that the Crilleys should not be awarded the fees, the magistrate and judge needed to find that the school district believed it was not violating the open meetings act and that the school district’s actions “would serve the public policy” involved. Welsh found that both were true.

He ruled that the board was “reasonable” in believing the public meetings policies — both written and informal — it followed complied with Ohio law.

The school board adopted a public meetings policy in 2006 provided by the Ohio School Boards Association that Welsh and Krichbaum found did not comply with state law.

The school district changed its notification rule Oct. 28, 2020, in the months after the Crilleys filed the lawsuit. The rule in effect Aug. 10, 2020, did not specify the method the school district would use to notify the public of the time, place and purpose of special meetings, which it should have, the magistrate, judge and appeals court agreed.

The judge, magistrate and appeals court also ruled the school district failed to notify the public of the purpose of the special Aug. 10, 2020, meeting, as required.

Welsh ruled that he found that the school district was reasonable in believing its written and unwritten policies for notifying the public of public meetings “would serve the public policy” involved.

“In arriving at this, perhaps what the magistrate finds most compelling is that it is extremely reasonable for a school board to believe that the public meeting notice policy that it obtains from an established organization such as the Ohio School Boards Association, utilized by several other schools, complied with (Ohio law) and could be adopted and relied upon without any revisions,” Welsh’s ruling states.

OBJECTIONS

On Monday, attorney Robert McDowall, who represents the Crilleys, filed “objections” to Welsh’s decision, saying the school district never provided any evidence that the public notification policy the Lowellville Board of Education approved in 2006 was used by other school boards except testimony from the Lowellville treasurer that “a lot” of other schools used the deficient notification policy.

The school district “did not produce a single record (public or otherwise) showing any other school had ever adopted the … notification rule,” the filing states.

The Crilleys filing states that it is not reasonable for a school district such as Lowellville to believe that its public-notification policy is adequate when it does not include a requirement to tell the public the “method or manner of notifying the public of the time, place or purpose of special meetings.”

The school district used other methods of notifying the public of meetings, but it did not utilize those methods consistently, the Crilley filing noted.

For the July 27, 2020, meeting, it used its Facebook page, its website, robo-calls and a news media release. But for the Aug. 10, 2020, meeting, it used only its website and sent a news media notice.

“What is evident and readily apparent from the record is the ‘unwritten practices’ of (the school district) are applied in an … inconsistent manner. They appear to be subject to the whims” of the school district, the Crilley filing states.

“Logic and common sense dictates ‘unwritten practices’ are more likely to result in confusion and uncertainty than” policies that adhere to state law, the filing adds.

The school district has not yet responded to the Crilley objections, according to court records.

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