Dayton Schools facing lawsuits over firings, meeting law, security

As Dayton Public Schools faces a crucial last four months of the school year, with the possibility of state takeover hanging in the balance, the district is also busy in local courtrooms, defending itself against three current lawsuits and recently losing an appeal related to school security procedures.

Two of the ongoing lawsuits allege that the school board improperly terminated administrative employees’ contracts, while the other is an appeal related to the 2018 school closing task force organized by DPS and the city of Dayton. The school security case covered whether DPS’ security chief was acting as an agent of law enforcement and required to give Miranda warnings to a student.

Wrongful termination?

The newest case against Dayton Public Schools was filed Jan. 4 in Montgomery County Common Pleas Court by Venita Kelley, who served as director of the Office of Strategic Communication and Community Relations for less than a year in 2017-18.

Kelley’s lawsuit argues she was wrongfully discharged, citing “racial and gender discrimination and retaliation.” Kelley, who is African-American, seeks reinstatement to her position with back pay and benefits, plus $100,000 in compensatory damages and $100,000 in punitive damages.

Kelley’s suit names the school district, Superintendent Elizabeth Lolli and all seven current school board members. She claims that once Rhonda Corr (who hired Kelley) was placed on leave in November 2017, the district “openly resisted all efforts” by Kelley to implement the diversity work she had been tasked with.

RELATED: DPS ousts three administrators, gives others raises

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Kelley’s lawsuit says she was removed as supervisor of DPS’ Males of Color initiative because she is female, then faced “trumped up” allegations designed to oust her. She claims Lolli “caused plaintiff’s signature to be forged on a Jan. 28, 2018 document.”

DPS has yet to file its first brief in answer to the Kelley lawsuit, and district officials declined comment this week on any of these four cases.

In a March 12, 2018 performance evaluation, Lolli said Kelley had been ineffective in her strategic communication role and had used her purchasing card inappropriately.

Kelley’s attorney, David Duwel, said Monday that Kelley has a very good reputation for diversity work, adding that there are “some real factual divides in the case.”

“(DPS) is going to file an answer and counterclaim I believe,” Duwel said. “They think Dr. Kelley owes them some money for some expenditures she made for going to various functions. … I don’t think there’s any factual basis for that.”

Former treasurer case

Craig Jones sued the district more than two years ago, saying the way the school board non-renewed his contract as treasurer in 2016 was improper for multiple reasons. The trial court disagreed, ruling in favor of DPS in 2017. But an appeals court reversed the decision in 2018, saying the board violated open meetings law at the meeting where Jones’ contract was non-renewed, making their vote invalid.

Dayton Public Schools appealed the issue to the Ohio Supreme Court, but that court declined jurisdiction in June. That sends the case back to Montgomery County Common Pleas Court, where motions for summary judgment are due next week.

RELATED: County judge rejects Jones’ lawsuit vs. DPS

RELATED: Appeals court reversal favors ex-DPS treasurer

Attorney Brian Wildermuth, who represented the school district in the case, said after the appeals ruling that the focus is now likely to be on monetary damages, adding that Jones will not be reinstated to the DPS treasurer role. Jones’ base salary in his final year as DPS treasurer was $132,000. For the past year, he has served as treasurer of Jefferson Twp. Local Schools.

Jones declined comment on Tuesday.

Open meetings again

Local activist David Esrati has appealed a Common Pleas Court ruling related to his 2018 challenge of a school closing task force organized by DPS and the city of Dayton.

Last year, Judge Richard Skelton ruled that the task force was in fact a “public body,” meaning it was subject to Ohio open meetings law, as both Esrati and this newspaper had argued to DPS officials.

But Skelton denied Esrati’s request for an injunction, saying he did not meet the burden of proof about a closed task force bus tour containing substantive recommendations or discussion about potential school closings. Dayton’s school board eventually closed the old Valerie Elementary and its Innovative Learning Center after the task force concluded its work.

RELATED: Judge says DPS task force is subject to open meetings law

RELATED: Judge dismisses injunction request over DPS task force

Esrati has appealed in Ohio’s second appellate district, arguing that Skelton was wrong in granting DPS a summary judgment in the case, and asking for the open meetings issues to be remanded “for a proper trial.”

Esrati said Tuesday there were legal questions in the first case about the need for a restraining order versus an injunction. But he also questioned how Skelton’s ruling fit with the spirit of Ohio’s open meetings law.

“Skelton said I failed to prove that they had deliberations … at a meeting I wasn’t allowed into,” Esrati said.

School security case

This case dates back to a 2015 bomb threat at Longfellow school (now closed), which housed the district’s alternative school and in-lieu-of-expulsion programs. According to court records, a 13-year-old student admitted to then-DPS safety director Jamie Bullens, with two Dayton police officers present, that he called in the false threat, leading to his arrest.

But the student moved to suppress his statements, arguing that he was not advised of his Miranda rights before the interview. The state claimed the student was not in custody, saying Bullens was not a law enforcement officer. The local court sided with the student, saying Bullens was acting as an agent of law enforcement.

In a 2017 split decision, the second district appeals court affirmed the lower court’s decision in 2017, citing the student’s age, the fact he was brought to Bullens by the school’s resource officer, and Bullens’ interaction with Dayton Police that day.

DPS appealed to the Ohio Supreme Court, which voted 4-3 in September to dismiss DPS’ appeal as “improvidently accepted,” meaning it lacked “a substantial constitutional question, a question of public or great general interest, or otherwise does not need to be decided by the court.”

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