Freshwater brings suit against Board of Education

John Freshwater (search PT on “Freshwater”), the middle school science teacher terminated by the Mt. Vernon, Ohio, Board of Education last year, has filed a federal suit against the Board, two individual Board Members, two current administrators and one former administrator, the independent investigators, and David Millstone, the attorney for the Board. According to the news report

The lawsuit, filed in US District Court for the Southern District of Ohio, cites free speech and equal protection violations under the US Constitution. Violations of Ohio Public Policy, religious harassment, retaliation, conspiracy, defamation, and breach of contract are also addressed in the claim filed Tuesday.

As I understand it, the suit was precipitated by the refusal of two Board members, Ian Watson (President of the Board) and Jodi Goetzman, to testify in the on-going administrative hearing on Freshwater’s termination. Apparently if they testify in the hearing the two Board Members would have to recuse themselves from voting on the final recommendation of the hearing referee (it’s a 5-member Board). At least that’s what I’ve heard as the reason for their refusal to testify.

So this is the legal situation (mess) as I understand it now:

1. Administrative hearing: In the spring of 2008 the Board hired an independent investigator to investigate various charges against Freshwater. As a result of that investigation, the Board voted in August 2008 to terminate Freshwater’s employment. As provided in Ohio law, Freshwater appealed that decision, and his appeal is being heard in an administrative hearing presided over by a referee who will make a recommendation when (if?) the hearing concludes. That hearing commenced in October 2008 and is still in progress (I use that word loosely). The Board completed its case in chief in January 2009, and Freshwater’s case in chief is still being presented. Once that’s complete, the Board has the option to bring a rebuttal, and Freshwater then has the option to rebut the rebuttal. The hearing is scheduled to resume on June 18, but in light of this new federal lawsuit and the refusal of the Board members to testify in the hearing, it’s unlikely that date will be kept.

2. The family’s federal suit: In June 2008 the family who originally complained to the District about Freshwater’s behavior brought suit in federal court against the Board, two administrators, and Freshwater, alleging violations of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. That suit is still pending.

3. Freshwater’s counterclaim: In September 2008 Freshwater filed a counterclaim against the family, alleging slander. As far as I know that counterclaim is still pending.

4. Freshwater’s federal suit: And now we have this new federal suit by Freshwater.

The Kitzmiller trial cost the Dover Area School Board $1 million. The direct cost of the Freshwater affair to the Mt. Vernon School District to date is now on the close order of $300K, with a lot more yet to come. Before this is all over just the legal costs may well approach the total cost of the Kitzmiller case. The central lesson for Boards and administrations like those in Mt. Vernon is that benign neglect is not a financially prudent policy. In testimony before the Ohio State Board of Education in 2003 I coined the phrase “Dover Trap” to describe the hole local districts could find themselves in when they fail to properly manage teachers and administrators who do not understand the secular nature of public education. Mt. Vernon is well and truly caught in a Dover Trap.