Earlier this month, a judge in Hamilton County sided with the Board of Education of the Cincinnati Public School District (“Board”) when she denied the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers’ (“Union”) motion for a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction that sought to delay the return to in person learning. Cincinnati Fed. of Teachers v. Bd. of Education of the School District of Cincinnati, No. A2100376 (Feb. 1, 2021).
This case was the result of the Board voting to resume in-person instruction beginning February 1, 2021. As a result, the Union filed a motion for a temporary restraining order on the basis that the Board’s decision to resume in-person instruction violated provisions of their collective bargaining agreement (“CBA”). In particular one of the provisions of the CBA provides that the Board and the Union will cooperate with one another in making reasonable provisions for the health and safety of its teachers. Additionally, the CBA provides that if a teacher believes that they are being required to work under unsafe or unhealthy conditions beyond the normal hazards of the job, then they have a right to file a grievance. In return, the Board argued that the court should dismiss the case because it lacked jurisdiction and because the Board had the express authority to make decisions regarding in-person instruction.
In reaching its decision, the court looked to § 4 of the Norris-Laguardia Act, 29 U.S.C. § 104, which generally prevents courts from granting injunctive relief involving labor disputes. However, an exception to this general rule applies if the controversy involves a labor dispute, an evidentiary hearing is held, the underlying dispute is subject to the arbitration procedure of the collective bargaining agreement, and the basis for injunctive relief are satisfied.
In evaluating the union’s claim, the court relied on previous Supreme Court precedent which held that a union’s claim that a board failed to provide them with notice and opportunity to discuss the closure of a facility fell under the exclusive jurisdiction of the State Employment Relations Board (“SERB”). State ex rel. Wilkinson v. Reed, 99 Ohio St.3d 106 (2003). The court in this particular case analogized the union’s failure to cooperate claim to the claim in Reed. Thus, the court concluded that SERB had exclusive jurisdiction to the claim and it therefore was not subject to the arbitration process. Because they were not subject to the arbitration process, the union’s claim did not meet the exception to the general rule that prevents courts from granting injunctive relief in a labor dispute.
The teachers in this case also filed a grievance due to their belief that they were being required to work under conditions which were unsafe or unhealthy. Though the arbitration process with respect to this grievance was proceeding, the union asked the court to issue a status quo injunction while the grievance was being resolved. In evaluating this claim, the court looked to a particular section of the CBA which stated that the Board is invested with the governmental authority and control of Cincinnati Public Schools. The provision further stated that the Board’s authority includes the authority to make rules, regulations and policies that are necessary for the government of schools, the employees, and their students.
This court further noted that the Ohio legislature has vested superintendents and boards of education with almost unlimited reasonable authority to manage and control the schools within their districts. Courts will not interfere with grant of discretionary power, so long as it is exercised in good faith and is not a clear abuse of discretion. Here, the court determined that the return to in-person instruction clearly fell within the authority granted to the Board. Thus, the court concluded that the claims brought by the Union were not arbitrable and the court could not issue an injunction.
What this means for your district?
Ohio superintendents and boards of education have the ultimate decision-making authority in determining whether their schools return to in-person instruction. Courts recognize that Ohio has granted superintendents and boards of education with almost unlimited authority to manage and govern the schools within their districts. So long as boards and superintendents exercise this power reasonably and in good faith without violating the laws of the state of Ohio, courts will seldom interfere.
The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted our lives and businesses in ways we never envisioned. The real estate market has certainly not been spared. Office space, hotels, restaurants and retail establishments have been particularly hard hit. Demand for office space is likely to decline given our adaptation to working at home. As of July 30th, the American Hotel and Lodging Association reported that more than half of hotel rooms were empty across the country with many hotels being completely closed.1 Many of our favorite restaurants and retail establishments have also been forced to close during the pandemic. All of this is likely to affect real estate values for years to come.
Starting in January, property owners will have the option to file complaints with their county boards of revision seeking to lower the county auditor’s value assigned to their properties (and their tax bills). We anticipate that many property owner’s will take advantage of this opportunity. However, their complaints may be premature. That is because real estate taxes are paid one year in arrears. Thus, any complaint filed next year is for valuation during the 2020 tax year. By law, boards of revision must establish value next year as of January 1, 2020. As of that date, the COVID-19 pandemic had not greatly impacted our lives or the real estate market. Nonetheless, many property owners will not realize this distinction and will file anyway.
County boards of revision understand and appreciate this aspect of the law. However, the individuals who sit on those boards, which sometimes include elected officials, are often empathetic toward property owners who face significant challenges with their commercial businesses or properties. For that reason, it is not uncommon for boards of revision to grant relief even though they technically should not do so under law. They are easily able to do so when property owners are unopposed.
Faced with similar issues during the great recession, the Ohio Board of Tax Appeals made it clear that general references to decreased real estate values will not be enough to sustain a reduction in property value. In Price v. Summit County Board of Revision, 2012 WL 440783 (February 7, 2012), a property owner sought to reduce the value of his properties due to the recession and foreclosure crisis. The BTA rejected his request because it “has consistently rejected the notion that real property values must necessarily rise or fall commensurate with some preconceived notion of ‘historical trending’ or inflationary/deflationary rates.”
To help ensure county boards of revision uphold the law, school districts are advised to strongly consider filing counter-complaints against requests for reduction that appear unwarranted. Under R.C. 5715.19, boards of education are entitled to notice of all valuation complaints that seek to decrease the value of real property by $50,000 or more. Boards of education have the option to file counter-complaints contesting those decrease requests within 30 days of receipt of that notification.
What this means for your district?
Decreases in value through the county board of revision process directly impact the tax revenue received by school districts. Any decrease in valuation will result in a refund issued to the property owner. Those refunds are directly taken from school funding via the county treasurer settlement statements. We anticipate that school districts will face many decrease complaints next year, some of which are sure to be unwarranted. Ennis Britton attorneys can help school districts determine when it is appropriate to file counter-complaints to contest unwarranted decrease complaints to help maintain the tax valuation of the district.
The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) published a new COVID-19 Q&A on September 28, 2020 (OSEP QA 20-01). While OSEP explicitly cautions that the Q&A “is intended only to provide clarity to the public regarding existing requirements,” it nonetheless provides insights on how long-standing rules and laws will be applied to the novel COVID-19 virus.
In support of school districts that are guiding their decision-making based on the health and safety of students and staff, OSEP repeatedly describes health and safety as “most important” and “paramount.” If a hearing officer or court is making a decision based on the equities (i.e. fairness) the emphasis of OSEP on safety will weigh in favor of schools making reasonable adjustments to how IDEA is implemented. However, OSEP also repeatedly states that school districts “remain responsible for ensuring that a free appropriate public education (FAPE) is provided to all children with disabilities.” This requires an individualized response to COVID-19 that focuses on “each child’s unique needs” and ensures “challenging objectives.”
To strike the balance of protecting health and safety while also providing FAPE, OSEP points school districts to the normal IDEA processes. The Q&A notes that no changes to the law or regulations have been made at the federal level. Interestingly, when discussing the timeline for initial evaluations OSEP advises that states “have the flexibility to establish additional exceptions” to the 60 day initial evaluation timeline. As of this writing, the Ohio Department of Education has not taken actions to allow for COVID-19 specific exceptions from the timeline.
Otherwise, OSEP’s Q&A largely points to approaches that have been addressed in prior “Special Education Spotlight” articles, Ennis Britton blog posts, and in our Coffee Chat webinar series. These approaches include conducting records review evaluations when in-person evaluations are not possible, using virtual team meeting platforms, and delivering services flexibly (e.g. teletherapy, consultation with parents.). OSEP warns against conducting remote evaluations if doing so would violate the instructions of the test publishers.
The discussion of extended school year (ESY) services is perhaps the topic most likely to generate interest in the short-term. After clearly distinguishing ESY from compensatory education or recovery services, OSEP acknowledges the authority of the states to establish standards for ESY. Note that in Ohio the standard is based on excessive regression and recoupment. OSEP proceeds to observe that, understandably, ESY services may not have been provided over the past summer due to COVID-19 restrictions. In such cases, OSEP encourages school districts to “consider” providing ESY during times such as the regular school year or scheduled breaks (e.g. winter break).
The Ennis Britton Special Education Team will continue to monitor and share with clients the latest developments as we navigate this unusual school year. Please contact a member of our team with questions or concerns.
In light of ongoing bans on mass gatherings, many school districts are moving to a graduation ceremony plan that involves a video or other online elements (e.g. video, PowerPoint, etc.). While virtual commencements may be almost unheard of prior to this spring, there are long-standing legal requirements that apply to this format just as they would to traditional, in-person ceremonies.
Traditional graduation ceremonies include many features aimed at making them accessible to students, family and friends, and school employees who have disabilities. Because school facilities are already subject to Americans with Disabilities Act design requirements everything from the parking lots, building entrances, restrooms, and seating areas are already accessible. Specific to the graduation ceremony itself, a school might have wheelchair ramps to access the stage, a sign language interpreter, and other accommodations.
The same anti-discrimination laws that inform the accommodations described above also apply to online services offered by school districts. In recent years, disability rights activists have filed hundreds of complaints regarding school district website accessibility. In many cases, the activists had no connection at all to the district against which the complaint was filed. They were simply scouring the internet for websites with obvious accessibility concerns. It is entirely possible that a similar approach may be used in relation to this year’s virtual graduation ceremonies. In any event, it makes good sense for districts to address website accessibility, irrespective of the pandemic.
As such, and in our experience assisting school districts that were subject to website accessibility complaints, it seems that there are certain “red flags” that may have caused some websites to be targeted for complaints while others were not. Applying this lesson to virtual graduation ceremonies, there are some basic steps that can still be taken to reduce the risk of receiving an investigation letter from the Office for Civil Rights:
- Investigate practical captioning options: Many online platforms have captioning already built-in, so it may just be a matter of enabling this feature and editing the automatic captioning. Captioning can stand in the place of a sign language interpreter if that is normally offered at your district’s ceremonies. Of course, many graduation ceremonies in the past did not have an interpreter and this has not caused widespread complaints. The idea now is to investigate what options are available in the online platform that you use for the ceremony and to use available tools to reduce your risks.
- Pay attention to color contrast: School colors are a source of pride and frequently used in important rituals like graduation. However, if the school colors are low contrast (e.g. red and orange, green and blue) it may cause problems for people with vision-related disabilities. Consider pairing neutral alternative colors like black or white with a school color to avoid low contrast pairings.
- Ensure announcements of the ceremony details are formatted for screen reader use: People with vision-related disabilities sometimes use screen readers to access electronic written information. Some file formats are less screen reader-friendly. PDF files and other picture type files can be problematic. Simpler can be better when it comes to conveying information in writing. A basic email or attached Word document is less likely to cause challenges.
- Make access to the virtual ceremony accessible: A common challenge with school websites is that they are not easily navigated by individuals with physical challenges that prevent them from using a mouse. Consider emailing students and their families a link that goes directly to the virtual ceremony. The more steps that must be taken to get to the virtual ceremony, the more risk there is of an accessibility issue (e.g. a drop-down menu that cannot be easily accessed using keyboard tabbing, a link button that is not tagged, etc.).
The efforts taken by school districts to offer something special for seniors graduating under the current conditions are admirable. Paying close attention to accessibility for people with disabilities will help ensure that these celebrations do not lead to legal headaches down the road.
April 30th, 2020, the Ohio Department of Health Director, Dr. Amy Acton, issued
two revised orders that will impact school operations at least in the short
term. These orders will cover school operations through June 30th at a minimum.
It’s a wrap
– concluding school operations for 2019-2020.
The first order directs schools to remain
closed to students through June 30th, 2020. However, the Director clarifies
that the order does not prohibit administrators, teachers, staff, vendors, or
contractors from showing up for work. Rather, administrators are tasked with
determining who will have access to the buildings and are encouraged to promote
practices such as social distancing and frequent hand washing. The order
encourages administrators to consider remote work options when possible.
order also specifically excludes a number of activities and events that may
occur at schools, such as voting, food services, health services, and
charitable works, as well as “targeted” and other educational programs and
activities. While schools have the discretion to determine what types of
programs and services may be provided, it should do so with caution and only
after consulting with the local health department and legal counsel. Further, a
school district must obtain written approval from the local department of
health before the activities may be held and then must submit a copy of the
written approval to both the Ohio Department of Health and the Ohio Department
are expected to follow the social distancing guidelines published by the Ohio
Department of Health while conducting activities. Local law enforcement and
other officials who are tasked with enforcing the order are also directed and
encouraged to contact local health departments with questions and for opinions
there are many practical and legal implications as you determine what
operations will resume, it is very important to consult with your
administrators, local health departments, and legal counsel as you make plans. Click here to review the order.
as Usual? Not so fast!
The second order, which will remain in effect
through May 29th, 2020, addresses how residents and the majority of businesses
will operate during much of May. The stay-at-home requirement remains for
residents, although they are permitted to engage in business activities
authorized by the order. Individuals who are returning to the state are
encouraged to self-quarantine for fourteen days.
order allows most businesses to resume operations as long as they meet
workplace safety standards. These standards changed several times, but as of
May 1st included the following:
must wear face masks or “face coverings” at all times unless an exception
applies; it is recommended that visitors do as well.
and employees will conduct daily health assessments to determine if someone is
“fit for duty.”
who report for work will maintain social distancing (people will stay 6 feet
apart) and will also sanitize and wash hands regularly.
will be cleaned throughout the workday (for high touch surfaces), as well as at
the close of each day or between shifts.
meet social distancing guidelines, buildings will limit the number of visitors
and employees to 50% of the building capacity established by the fire code.
are specific rules about face coverings and masks, including when employees are
not required to wear them in the workplace. The exceptions include the
are prohibited by law or regulation.
are in violation of a documented industry standard.
are not “advisable” for health reasons.
violate a business’s documented safety policy.
are working alone in an area and coverings are therefore not necessary.
is a practical/functional reason why an employee should not wear a covering or
a minimum, facial masks or coverings should be made of cloth and should cover
an individual’s mouth, nose, and chin. An employer must be able to provide
written justification for any exception if requested to do so.
are expected to “immediately report” when any employee is diagnosed with COVID-19
and will work with the local department to identify others who may have been
exposed. They are also expected to send employees home when they show signs of
the illness. When possible, a building site will be closed until it can be
professionally cleaned. Buildings may be reopened in consultation with the
local health department.
20 of the order contains a more specific list of steps that businesses are
expected to comply with as operations resume, broken down by type of business.
The order specifies requirements for manufacturing, construction, consumer
retail and services, and general office environment. Of course, schools are
governed by the separate order summarized above.
the order includes a list of businesses that must remain closed for the time
being, including schools (at least as to student attendance), most childcare
services, beauty salons, entertainment and recreation facilities, and
restaurants/bars. These businesses may only engage in minimum basic operations
as defined by the businesses.
Click here to review the order.
Challenge to Orders Being Proposed in the House
State Rep. John Becker
of Clermont County plans to introduce a bill that would repeal the current
health orders, and make any future orders issued by the Director of Health
advisory unless and until those orders are approved by the General Assembly.
The bill would focus on speeding up Ohio’s return to normal business
operations. Stay tuned for more information about this and other efforts to change
the state’s direction.
We Can Help!
Many challenges and opportunities continue to present themselves during this pandemic – it is critical that you rely on credible sources of information to remain up-to-date. It is also important for you to consider your district’s specific needs as you develop plans, and remember that there is no “one size fits all” approach. Make sure you discuss your details and situation with legal counsel to determine how you can effectively implement these and other orders that arise.
The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act was passed by Congress on March 27, 2020. Part of the act directs U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to submit a report to Congress. The report, that must be submitted by the end of April, is to make recommendations for any additional waivers that might be needed under IDEA, in direct response to the COVID-19 pandemic. There is reason to believe that a concerted effort on the part of school districts could result in much-needed flexibility during this unprecedented time.
The National Association of State Directors of Special Education (NASDSE) and the Council of Administrators of Special Education (CASE) jointly wrote a letter in anticipation of the report the DeVos will submit. The letter asks for flexibilities for specific IDEA provisions that have been affected by COVID-19. Those provisions include timelines, procedural activities, and fiscal management. Other groups, including parent groups pushing back hard against reasonable adjustments in light of the global pandemic, are also lobbying for what flexibility should entail.
Concerns that we are hearing from clients often center on flexibility related to evaluation timelines (especially initial evaluations), recognition that what constitutes a free, appropriate, public education during the health emergency need not match what would be provided under regular operations, and realistic expectations for compensatory education upon resumption of regular school operations. If you would like to contribute to the conversation on what the flexibilities might look like, now is the time. Get in contact with professional organizations to lobby for what you feel strongly about. Your opinion matters.