The settlement comes two weeks before the board was about to face trial
EAST CLEVELAND, OHIO - Today, the East Cleveland City School District board of education committed to concrete actions to comply with Ohio's open-government laws, correct past violations, and reimburse Dr. Patricia A. Blochowiak, a board member, $100,000 in attorneys' fees and costs incurred in her whistleblower action forcing the board's legal compliance.
Ohio's Open Meetings Act is a "sunshine law" creating open and transparent government. To ensure public access to government, the law requires, with limited exceptions, that public bodies take action and deliberate on official business only in meetings open to the public. A meeting occurs when a public body's majority discusses public business in a prearranged gathering, even if it's an informal one. Meetings require public notice. And the body must prepare full and accurate minutes, so the public knows what happened. Closed-door discussion away from public view in "executive session" is permitted only for certain specified reasons.
Dr. Blochowiak, an elected board member since 2008, sued the board in 2014. The suit alleged that the board had committed numerous open-government violations, including engaging in improper decision-making behind closed doors, and keeping incomplete and inaccurate minutes that did not disclose to the public how decisions were made. One allegation involved decisions about a board-organized, one-day carnival that cost taxpayers over $20,000.
The settlement agreement requires the board to take measures including the following:
- Correct over a dozen specific sets of meeting minutes to accurately reflect what took place in meetings.
- Ensure that the board's minute-taking is complete and accurate in the future, including periodic review and audit of the minutes against meeting audio recordings-which have to be retained for ten years.
- Restrict private, "executive session" deliberations to only those specific, narrow purposes permitted by law-and only when the board has publicly disclosed its reason for going into executive session. This addressed concerns that the board was repeatedly going behind closed doors without stating a proper basis for doing so.
- Rescind board policies regarding the evaluations of the superintendent and district treasurer. This addressed concerns that those policies resulted from improper closed-door sessions on November 25, 2013, thus enabling the board to disregard the evaluation scores of a board member who was critical of those administrators' performance.
- Ensure that the district's military-families essay contest and luncheon are not board-driven. This addressed concerns that board members had made contest and luncheon decisions outside of open meeting, with no public notice or full board vote.
- Regarding future board retreats, vote ahead of time on the agenda and to authorize the maximum amount to be spent. This addressed concerns that the board had acquiesced in a single board member's making outside-of-open-meeting decisions amounting to over $20,000 for a one-day board-retreat carnival in 2013.
- Mandate that every board member attend open-government training certified by the Ohio attorney general once every two years.
- Protect a board member's ability to demand public records. This addressed concerns that the board was blocking Dr. Blochowiak's access to public records.
- Reimburse $100,000 in Dr. Blochowiak's attorneys' fees incurred in her suit. (The law provides for attorneys' fees recovery, incentivizing citizens to enforce the Open Meetings Act-and to deter public bodies from breaking the law.)
The agreement does not release the board from any potential claims Dr. Blochowiak might have against it for baseless, petty "censures" of her. These censures resulted from Dr. Blochowiak's taking students to the natural-history museum after school with parental permission; hugging a distraught child; and sharing information in consultation with her own lawyer.
Subodh Chandra, Dr. Blochowiak's lead counsel, said, "This agreement holds the board accountable for betraying the promise of open government, and is a victory for democracy. Schoolchildren and their families deserve to know and understand their public officials' decisions--good and bad--and how they made those decisions."
The suit is Blochowiak v. East Cleveland City School District Board of Education, Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court, No. 14-828211. The court retains jurisdiction to enforce the agreement.
Linked below is a copy of the final, signed, court-enforceable settlement agreement that the Board approved:
2017-01-17 Blochowiak v. East Cleveland School District Board of Education FINAL SIGNED SETTLEMENT AGREEMENT.pdf
Chandra, Sandhya Gupta, and Patrick Haney of The Chandra Law Firm LLC, www.ChandraLaw.com, represent Dr. Blochowiak.