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Legal arguments resume in Lowellville

Family accuses school district of violating meeting laws

YOUNGSTOWN — Though the lawsuit of Christopher and Gina Crilley against Lowellville Local Schools failed to overturn the remote-only learning plan of the school district during the first nine weeks of the 2020-21 school year over a Public Meetings Act violation, their litigation continues.

The Crilleys and the school district recently filed legal briefs in Mahoning County Common Pleas Court regarding one issue that remains — whether the Crilleys should be reimbursed by the school district for legal fees they have incurred while litigating the matter.

Judge R. Scott Krichbaum of Mahoning County Common Pleas Court and his magistrate, Tim Welsh, ruled in favor of the Crilleys’ argument that the school district committed an Open Meetings Act violation regarding its special meeting of the board Aug. 10, 2020.

The judge, magistrate and 7th District Court of Appeals found the school system had used a policy of notifying the public of meetings that did not comply with the Ohio Open Meetings Act in August 2020.

The school district changed its notification rule at a meeting Oct. 28, 2020. 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 appeals court ruled.

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.

But the judge, magistrate and appeals court found that the actions taken by the school board at the Aug. 10, 2020, meeting — taking a symbolic vote to support then-Superintendent Eugene Thomas’ decision to switch to a remote-only learning model for the first nine weeks — should not be overturned because it was only symbolic and not required because of the special rules in place at the time because of COVID-19. Therefore, it found the Open Meetings Act violation to be “moot.”

The judge and magistrate ordered the school district to pay a “civil forfeiture” of $500 to the Crilleys because of the Open Meetings Act violation, but they refused to order the school system to pay the Crilleys’ legal fees.

On appeal, the 7th District Court of Appeals reversed the judge and magistrate’s decision on legal fees and sent the issue back to the judge and magistrate to reach a new ruling.

The appeals court said the judge and magistrate could refuse to order that the school district pay the Crilleys’ legal fees only if two conditions were met: That the school district reasonably believed it was not violating the Open Meetings Act and that the school district reasonably believed its conduct would serve “public policy.”

The appeals court ruling stated the judge and magistrate failed to demonstrate those factors were considered.

Welsh asked the parties in December to file briefs regarding the legal fees before he renders a follow-up ruling.

The Crilleys’ attorney, Robert McDowall of Austintown, filed a brief recently that stated the school district’s superintendent and treasurer testified at a bench trial regarding the lawsuit that they were knowledgeable regarding the Open Meetings Act and both received “special training” in the law.

The filing states it was the duty of school district officials and the school board to enact a notification policy that complied with the law.

The fact that the superintendent and treasurer believed they were complying with the Open Meetings Act is “irrelevant,” the McDowall filing states.

“A ‘well-informed public body knowledgeable with (Open Meetings Act) mandates … would not reasonably believe its notification rule … to be compliant” with the Open Meetings Act, the filing states.

The brief also stated the school district “presented no rational, cogent (or any) reason on the record explaining why or how its deficient meeting notification rule … serves the public policy, which underlines the purpose of the” Open Meetings Act.

The purpose of providing the public with notice of a meeting is to “allow participation so citizens can exercise their right to see the functioning of elected officials, the reasons for the public body’s decisions and what factors and information the public body considered in reaching its decisions,” the McDowall filings states.

The Lowellville Board of Education had been using the public-notification rule it used in August 2020 for 14 years, McDowall stated.

The filing of the school board, filed by attorney Thomas C. Holmes of Solon, stated the school board adopted a new policy Oct. 28, 2020, that complied with the judge and magistrate’s ruling.

The new ruling states that notifications to the public for a special meeting will include the purpose of a special meeting and will be posted on a board of education web page at least 24 hours before the meeting. It also added information about notifying the public on the board web page for an emergency meeting.

The school district filing argues that even though the board did not put all of its public notification practices in writing prior to October of 2020, it had a practice of posting its meeting agendas on a web page 48 hours before a meeting and notifying the local newspaper. Those practices “constituted a reasonable notification method that complied with” state law, the filing states.

The filing cited a 1997 ruling involving the Hocking Hills Local Schools in which that school district had a policy of notifying the public through the news media.

The Lowellville school district filing stated it was reasonable for the board to believe its meeting notification policy was satisfactory because the school board purchased it from a “renowned and established organization,” the Ohio School Boards Association, whose attorneys wrote it.

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