For the second time in less than a year, Stow-Munroe Falls school board member Rod Armstrong is suing his colleagues, again accusing the board of failing to follow its own rules and “obstructing” him from fulfilling his fiduciary responsibility to taxpayers.
In response, school officials have denounced Armstrong’s lawsuits as a “preferred method of communication” that cost the district money.
“So far these lawsuits have cost the district more than the equivalent of two teaching positions, including salaries and benefits, in litigation costs,” school spokesperson Jacquie Mazziotta said, noting that Armstrong has sued the board three times. “Wouldn’t it be great if that money would have been used for students rather than responding to litigation?”
Mazziotta would not comment further on the June 28 lawsuit, which she said the district has not received. She did say that legal counsel has made a motion in federal court to dismiss a previous lawsuit, filed last August.
In that lawsuit, Armstrong said the board did not give an accurate reason for holding an executive session — a meeting held behind closed doors to discuss sensitive financial, student or personnel details.
That executive session was held to discuss the possibility of a high school principal tampering with student grades. That principal has since resigned.
The most recent suit alleges that the board used tax dollars to pay attorney fees for a levy committee. State law prohibits school boards from using public funds to support or oppose a levy.
Armstrong said the board and the district treasurer denied his request for those financial receipts, which might have confirmed the misappropriation.
“He has a duty to review records and be aware of what’s going on, and they are obstructing his ability to do that. We actually believe that is obstruction of official business,” said Warner Mendenhall, Armstrong’s attorney.
Armstrong asserts that, as an elected official, he is obligated to investigate any possible misappropriation of funds, just as he was obligated to report the possible misconduct of former high school Principal Sue Schur, who resigned after meeting with Superintendant Russell Jones to discuss allegations of grade tampering.
After an executive session in which Jones informed the board about the possible grade tampering, Armstrong tipped off the Ohio Department of Education, an action fellow board members characterized as an illegal breach of confidence.
“The deliberate disclosure of confidential information is an egregious breach of your duty as a board member and as an Ohio elected official. The breach of confidentiality is especially serious in that it involves criminal misconduct ... We trust that you will take this reprimand to heart and govern your conduct accordingly,” stated a letter addressed to Armstrong and signed by board President Karen Powers, Vice President Karen Wright and members Fred Bonacci and Richard Spangler.
Mazziotta would not comment on the allegations of grade tampering, but did say the ODE’s Office of Professional Conduct is investigating.
Mendenhall said the board’s attempts to conceal any possible abuse of the public trust, whether tampering with grades or misappropriating funds, is the egregious action.
“They’re blocking fundamentally what a public official should be doing. And I can’t imagine worse behavior from a school board or any government body,” Mendenhall said.
He characterized the letter reprimanding Armstrong after his client filed the first lawsuit as outrageous. “Then he’s disciplined. Are you kidding me?”
In the most recent lawsuit, Armstrong also objects to the board’s practice of lumping multiple items on its agenda, making a sweeping vote without giving ample discussion to individual topics. He said he has requested on separate occasions that each employee hiring or position creation should be voted on individually. He likens his all-or-nothing vote on a long list of appointments to “quasi consent.”
“I’m just asking for these agenda to separate some items,” Armstrong said. “With certain items, I’d like to have discussion.”
Doug Livingston can be reached at 330-996-3792 or firstname.lastname@example.org.