Ohio Court Denies Temporary Restraining Order to Halt Return to In-Person Instruction

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.  

Prepare for Increased Property Valuation Challenges

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.

1https://www.ahla.com/covid-19s-impact-hotel-industry

Ensuring Graduation Ceremonies Are Accessible to All Viewers

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. 

IDEA Flexibility Amidst COVID-19

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. 

COVID-19 Update: Relief for Student Loan Borrowers

On March 25, 2020, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos announced efforts to increase flexibility regarding payments for student loan borrows. The efforts are to ensure that borrowers will not endure additional stress in making ends meet during the unprecedented and burdensome times we are in. The flexibility will be for no less than 60 days from March 13, 2020, the date that President Donald Trump declared a national emergency relating to COVID-19.

DeVos’ efforts include halting all of the requests made to the U.S. Treasury that comprise withholding money from defaulted borrowers, known as Treasury offsets. These are withholdings from remittances such as federal income tax refunds, Social Security payments, or other federal payments that are withheld at the direction of the Department or Education or another debt collection agency. Additionally, Devos directed the Department of Education to refund nearly $1.8 billion in offsets to over 830,000 borrowers.

DeVos’ efforts include any wage garnishments. The Department of Education is relying on employers to make the change to borrowers’ paychecks and halt wage garnishments and is directing employees to contact their employers’ human resources department for assistance.

Districts should be proactive in ensuring that employee wages are not continuing to be garnished during this time. Please reach out to any of the Ennis Britton attorneys with any questions. For more information, visit StudentAid.gov/coronavirus.