Federal judge orders Lakota school board to reinstate public comment amid superintendent drama

The order comes days after Monday’s meeting where the board decided to restrict public comment entirely.
The Lakota School Board Lakota voted 4-1 Monday night to stop the public comment portion of...
The Lakota School Board Lakota voted 4-1 Monday night to stop the public comment portion of its meetings, effective immediately.(WXIX)
Published: Oct. 14, 2022 at 5:36 PM EDT|Updated: Oct. 16, 2022 at 10:52 AM EDT
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LIBERTY TOWNSHIP, Ohio - A federal judge has ordered the Lakota Schools Board of Education must reinstate the public comment period at its next meeting as tensions continue to boil over a controversy involving Superintendent Matt Miller.

The order comes as part of a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court by resident Diane Hughes against the school board and Lynda O’Conner in her official capacity as school board president.

Hughes accuses the board of unconstitutionally restricting free speech by preventing the public at the Sept. 12 board meeting from speaking critically of the board in the context of Miller.

The board justified its decision relying on a section of its bylaws: “To protect employee’s rights, the Board does not hear complaints about specific employees in public session.”

Hughes filed for a temporary restraining order to reinstate public comment prior to the board’s meeting Monday but later suspended that motion as she and the school board appeared to reach an agreement.

Then came Monday’s meeting, where Frost Brown Todd attorney Alex Ewing advised the board to shut down public comment, according to our media partners at the Enquirer.

The board followed suit by a 4-1 vote, restricting public comment entirely. Ewing was the only permitted speaker.

Board member Darbi Boddy, who is no stranger to controversy, was the lone “no” vote. “Muzzling our community is a bad idea,” she said. “It will not go well for you.”

Hughes’ attorney, Curt Hartman, told FOX19 NOW following the meeting: “We were greatly disappointed with the tack taken by the school board at the 11th hour. We were working it out very quickly, very amicably. They did a total 180. I think that demonstrates bad faith on their part.”

Now Hughes and the school board appear to have reached another agreement.

U.S. District Court Judge Timothy Black issued the notation order representing that agreement Wednesday. The board agreed not to enforce the section of its bylaws restricting public comment about individual employees. It also agreed to provide one 30-minute public comment period at the next meeting Nov. 7.

Hughes specifically “will be provided [three] minutes of uninterrupted time to speak.”

The school board, however reserves the right to remove public comment at any subsequent meetings “or otherwise revise its public participation policy.

The agreement, according to Black’s order, should bring the case to a resolution. Whether it is actually resolved appears to hinge on the board following through with its promise to let Hughes and other members of the public speak at board meetings going forward.

Superintendent under investigation

The suit was one of three pending against Lakota involving public records or public speaking at board meetings related to the superintendent.

Hartman, acting on Hughes’ behalf, filed a complaint with the Ohio Supreme Court last month against Lakota’s school board and Treasurer Adam Zink.

It accuses the school board of violating Ohio’s public record law by withholding the original complaint about Miller that resident Vanessa Wells filed with the district on Aug. 22.

Wells, who ran for school board last year and lost, subsequently filed the complaint with the Butler County Sheriff’s Office on Aug. 8.

Lakota provided FOX19 NOW with a copy of Wells’ complaint when we asked for a copy back in August.

The complaint contains second-hand claims against Miller that she heard from his ex-wife, sheriff’s records show.

The sheriff’s office closed its investigation last month, determining there was no probable cause that Miller, 51, committed a crime. No charges were filed.

O’Connor announced at the board’s Sept. 12 meeting the district would have Miller investigated further. The board voted to hire a New York-based law firm that is charging the district $280 to $360 per hour, school records show.

Most of the board continues to support Miller, who was chosen to be Lakota’s top administrator in 2017 after a national search. He is paid $192,000 annually to run the district of more than 17,300 students and also has a car allowance.

Boddy has repeatedly called for Miller to be put on leave and for the district to terminate him, citing matters related to his personal life that detectives confirmed during their investigation.

Since he has not been criminally charged, FOX19 NOW is not repeating the allegations.

Miller has publicly said the allegations against him are false and that he is the target of character assassination.

More than 550 people have signed an online petition to put Miller on administrative leave as of Tuesday morning

He announced at a special school board meeting on Sept. 28 that he has fully cooperated with the sheriff’s office investigation.

Sheriff’s records show that he talked to investigators at length without his lawyer present, as did his ex-wife.

Miller has said he’s also cooperating with the district-funded investigation as well.

“I will continue to devote my career, my life, to our kids and to our students, staff, administrators and our community and I won’t let bullies and rumors and false accusations deter me from that work,” Miller said at the meeting last month.

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