Public School Data Coordinator Not Entitled to Open Hearing Concerning Firing
A non-teaching employee at a public school did not have the right to a public hearing about his potential termination under the state’s open meetings law, the Ohio Supreme Court decided today.
While the data coordinator may have been entitled to a hearing for due process reasons, there is no requirement for the entire pretermination hearing to be held in public, Justice Paul E. Pfeifer wrote in the 6-1 ruling.
Part of Meetings Closed to Public
Adam Stewart was employed as a data coordinator by the Lockland School District, north of Cincinnati. The school district’s board of education investigated claims that employees had altered data about student attendance for the 2010-2011 school year, and Stewart was implicated.
During a meeting held after the investigation, the board of education adjourned into executive session, which is closed to the public, to discuss Stewart’s status. The employee’s lawyer attended. Stewart was then informed his employment would be considered at a special meeting. At that meeting, the board also went into executive session. Then, in open session, Stewart and his attorney spoke against the employee’s possible firing. After another closed session, the board passed a resolution terminating Stewart’s contract.
Stewart appealed to the Hamilton County Common Pleas Court, which granted summary judgment to the board of education. The First District Court of Appeals agreed with the trial court’s decision.
Justice Pfeifer pointed out that the state’s open meetings law permits public bodies to meet in executive sessions to discuss a public employee’s termination unless the employee requests a public hearing.
The Supreme Court has previously ruled that a tenured teacher is entitled to a public hearing before a contract is ended, but that no statute provides the same guarantee to non-tenured teachers.
Noting that R.C. 3319.081 governs the contracts of non-teaching school employees such as Stewart, Justice Pfeifer wrote, “R.C. 3319.081, which contains no reference to a public hearing, did not entitle Stewart to have his entire pretermination hearing held in public. … Neither, as far as we can determine, did any other statute.”
The U.S. Supreme Court’s 1985 decision in Cleveland Bd. of Edn. v. Loudermill also did not give Stewart the right to a public pretermination hearing, Justice Pfeifer noted.
“Stewart and his counsel had notice of the special meeting regarding his employment, and they appeared before Lockland prior to its adjournment into executive session,” he explained. “Stewart and his counsel availed themselves of the opportunity, then and again when Lockland reconvened in open session, to persuade Lockland to retain him as an employee and to refrain from any adverse action.”
“Loudermill does not entitle a public employee to have his or her entire pretermination hearing held in public. … Stewart received due process: he had notice of the special meeting regarding his employment status and an opportunity to be heard at that meeting. Nothing prevented Lockland from thereafter adjourning into executive session to deliberate upon its decision.”
Joining Justice Pfeifer’s opinion were Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justices Judith Ann Lanzinger, Sharon L. Kennedy, Judith L. French, and William M. O’Neill.
Justice Terrence O’Donnell dissented because he would have dismissed the case as improvidently allowed.
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