Lawsuit against Kent City School District heads to the Ohio Supreme Court

Image of Kent Roosevelt High School
Kent Roosevelt High School pictured in a file photo. Roger Hoover/The Portager

Clarification: An earlier version of this article reported the Ohio Teacher Evaluation System is not required by law. In reality, districts are allowed to develop their own evaluation systems that are different from OTES, so long as they align with key provisions.

A former Kent teacher says the school district did not follow its own rules for not renewing his contract. Kent City School District disagreed, and the case has now reached the Ohio Supreme Court.

Kent school administrators chose not to renew former Stanton Middle School teacher Shawn Jones’ contract in 2020.

If the high court rules in Jones’ favor, unions and school districts might have to rethink agreements regarding how teachers are evaluated.

Do administrators who are evaluating a teacher’s work have to actually observe the teacher in action? Are administrators required to use the Ohio Teacher Evaluation System (OTES) protocol when they are observing teachers, and can they change the OTES procedure even though it is codified in state law?

Does the court system have jurisdiction at all, or should cases such as this be decided by collective bargaining agreements unions and school districts hammer out on a regular basis?

The answers to all three questions could affect tens of thousands of teachers across the state. It could also cost the Kent schools — and by extension, Kent taxpayers — hundreds of thousands of dollars in Jones’ back pay.

Kent Superintendent Tom Larkin declined comment, citing ongoing litigation. Nor did Jones respond to The Portager’s request for comment. But court records state much of what has transpired:

Jones signed a one-year limited teaching contract with the Kent City School District in April 2019 to teach Communication Technology at Stanton Middle School. Jones had been teaching for the Kent schools for 20 years at that point.

Documents filed with the Portage County Common Pleas Court indicate that Jones met with then Stanton head Principal Anthony Horton and then Assistant Principal Kathy Scott on Oct. 18, 2019, to discuss Jones’ having left the school building without notifying an administrator on six days that month. The administrators alleged he’d also failed to fulfill his duties on certain early release and in-service days.

The administrators suspended Jones for three days without pay.

Jones did not report to school at all on Jan. 6, 2020. He hadn’t documented his absence on district software meant to alert substitute teachers that they were needed. He hadn’t notified administrators at all, and his students were left unsupervised until a student walked to the office to say there was no teacher.

That time, Jones received a letter from then Assistant Superintendent Larkin. That letter, dated Jan. 14, 2020, addressed Jones’ absence, the disciplinary meetings stemming from it, and informed him that he would be placed on “a full cycle OTES evaluation protocol.”

OTES, an evaluation tool the Ohio Department of Education developed, is meant to help school districts design or revise their teacher evaluation protocols. Districts are not required to use OTES itself but must comply with key provisions.

Districts using OTES routinely observe teachers twice a year, but teachers under full cycle evaluation protocols have qualified administrators observe their work three times a year. Each observation is to be surrounded by conferences meant to clarify what would be happening during the lesson, and to review the administrator’s conclusions as to what actually occurred.

According to court documents, Scott conducted Jones’ first formal observation on Jan 29, 2020. The required pre- and post-observation conferences were held as required.

Then Covid-19 struck, shuttering schools across Ohio and playing havoc with state rules directing schools to have all evaluations completed by May 1, and all written reports in teachers’ hands by May 10.

The Kent Education Association, a union that represents district teachers, reached an agreement with the administration that if the evaluations weren’t complete by March 16, 2020, they could be done virtually by May 22, 2020. The agreement also pushed the deadline for the written report back to May 29, 2020.

Court documents indicate that Jones’ second observation on May 1 was virtual, and the third was completed on May 15, also virtually. The only problem with the third observation was that Jones wasn’t there. After he’d experienced chest pain his physician chalked up to stress, Jones was placed on medical leave from May 11 through June 1.

That included not participating in electronic meetings, virtual learning or anything that was related to his teaching responsibilities, Jones clarified for the board during a June 30, 2020, Kent Board of Education executive meeting/hearing.

A transcript of that hearing indicates that Scott watched as Jones’ students updated each other on a virtual project he had assigned earlier. Being on leave, Jones was nowhere in sight. Jones told the board there was no pre-conference or post-conference related to the third observation, and that Scott simply watched his students work on the assignment they’d been doing during his second observation.

Larkin said he knew of no other instance where an evaluator conducted an observation while the teacher was not present, and acknowledged that the circumstances of Jones’ third observation were neither “preferred” nor “ideal.”

“We needed to complete this observation to meet the timelines of the state … Due to the unique circumstances of virtual learning … Ms. Scott completed an observation of the students working on the assignment that Mr. Jones had assigned on the 15th. And again, that was to meet the deadline,” he told the board of education.

Emerging from the executive session and hearing, the Kent Board of Education voted not to renew Jones’ teaching contract. His 20-year career in education seemed to have come to an end.

Jones filed an administrative appeal in Portage County Common Pleas Court, which on Aug. 18, 2021, ruled in favor of the Kent schools: The district had sufficient grounds for not renewing Jones’ one-year contract.

Since trial courts are not required to set forth their reasoning — called findings of facts and conclusions of law — when addressing administrative appeals, none is provided in the Common Pleas court record. The appellate court opinion states that on Aug. 31, 2021, Jones had filed a motion requesting finding of facts and conclusions of law, but that the request was denied.

Jones wasn’t done. He filed suit in the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, which determined on Jan. 30, 2023, that Kent’s Board of Education had not complied with its own procedure for completing the third formal observation and had not satisfied the requirements for not renewing Jones’ contract. The appellate court determined that the trial court had “abused its discretion” in supporting the Kent schools.

Pointing to precedent where courts have ordered teachers to be reinstated and awarded back pay from the time of non-renewal through the date of reinstatement, the appellate court ordered Kent schools to pay those damages, as well.

The Kent schools also weren’t done. The school district asked the Ohio Supreme Court to hear the case and received an affirmative response on June 6, 2023.

The way the legal hierarchy works, if the high court agrees in total with the appellate court opinion, Jones will be reinstated with back pay. If the justices disagree, the trial court’s original opinion would be reinstated, and Jones will be out of a job and back pay. Or the Supreme Court justices could fall somewhere in the middle, with unknown consequences until it issues its opinion.

Attorney John F. Myers of Akron, whose name appears on the trial and appellate court filings, and a brief the school board submitted to the supreme court, says Jones recently released him as his legal representative.

Akron attorney Donald Malarcik and Canton attorney Dan Eisenbrei, whose names also appear on trial and appellate court filings, are Jones’ representatives for the Supreme Court proceedings.

“We believe the Court of Appeals got it right, and we are confident that the Ohio Supreme Court will do the same,” Malarcik said. “Shawn was wrongly terminated.”

The Supreme Court docket does not indicate when the case will be heard, or when a decision will be rendered.

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Wendy DiAlesandro is a former Record Publishing Co. reporter and contributing writer for The Portager.