School & District Management

What Happens When Superintendents Sue Their School Boards? Usually Splitsville.

By Francisco Vara-Orta — February 22, 2017 5 min read
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When a rocky relationship between a superintendent and school board winds up in court, it can lead to the awkwardness of divorce—like when a splitting couple continues living together with their kids in the middle of the conflict.

As the relationship breaks down, it’s relatively common for superintendents to hit the escape hatches in their contracts, through resignation or retirement, or for school board trustees to get voted in or out as tensions air.

What’s more uncommon though are sitting superintendents suing the school board members who can hire, and in most cases, fire them. Conversely, it’s rare for a sitting trustee, or an entire board to sue a superintendent.

When it does happen, though, it usually doesn’t end well, according to a review by Education Week of such legal cases over the last decade.

The most recent case is unfolding now in the Howard County, Md., school district, where Superintendent Renee Foose has sued the school board in a dispute that is both professional and personal.

The suit, filed in January in Howard County Circuit Court, alleges that school board trustees passed a series of resolutions that aimed to “strip the superintendent of her lawful authority” since the newly elected board was sworn in December. The conflict has extended to Foose’s personal life, as she also claims in the suit that she has faced discrimination because of her sexual orientation as an out lesbian.

Cynthia Vaillancourt, the president of the Howard County school board, said in an emailed statement that the board has turned legal matters over to its lawyers and will continue to work with Foose. But, Vaillancourt acknowledged, the suit has fostered a “challenging” working situation, and characterized Foose as trying to usurp the board’s governance abilities.

Dan Domenech, the executive director of AASA, The School Superintendents Association and former superintendent of the Fairfax County district in Virginia, said that generally it’s a bad idea for superintendents to go public with concerns about the board, which employs them.

“When that happens relations are undoubtedly at the point where the superintendent will be making an exit soon,” said Domenech, who was not commenting on any specific case.

For now though, Foose and Howard County’s trustees have to constantly come back to the table to work—an indefinite situation thanks to the superintendent’s contract and stipulations rarely seen in state educational law but enshrined in Maryland.

Foose is in the first year of a new four-year contract, after already serving in the post for the last four years when she had a majority of support on the school board. Foose said in an interview she has no plans of backing down now from her position.

In Maryland, contracts for superintendents must be four years long at a time, according to Bill Reinhard, a spokesman for the state’s department of education. Many states allow trustees to simply tack on another year or two if they are satisfied with the superintendent.

While most states give local school boards authority to fire superintendents, Maryland law mandates that only the state superintendent can terminate them. The law gives the state chief five grounds for doing so: immorality, misconduct in office, insubordination, incompetency, and/or willful neglect of duty. Maryland law does allow for boards to negotiate separation agreements.

Reinhard said it’s unclear when the law went into effect for the state with 24 school systems. News reports cite the law’s differing origins as far as back as 1937, but it didn’t get much attention until 2002 during a contentious superintendent-school board rift in Prince George’s County. At the time, The Washington Post reported that the law took most school leaders in Maryland by surprise.

Even if a state allows their school boards more liberty to get rid of a superintendent, involving the courts can certainly protract the separation process. Education Week found a handful of such cases in recent years as reported by local media. Among them:

  • In 2013, in Ohio, Randy Stepp, the superintendent of the Medina City school district, sued the school board for allegedly defaming him. Trustees then moved to fire Stepp, which prompted the then-suspended superintendent to file a second suit to halt his firing. Stepp eventually submitted his resignation nearly a year later in the aftermath of a state auditor’s report that found he had misspent school funds, the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported.
  • In South Carolina in 2014, Vashti Washington, the superintendent of the Jasper County school district, sued school board member Randy Horton for defamation. While the court battle largely played out in the press, Washington and Horton had to work together for nearly a year and a half until the suit settled and the superintendent resigned.

School leadership experts say discord between superintendents and boards can easily hijack the district’s political climate, and that can have a chilling effect on progress as employees feel pressure to possibly choose sides.

In the absence of “marriage counseling,” Domenech of AASA quipped, there are intermediaries that either board trustees or superintendents can turn to for help mediating disputes, such as attorneys, search consultants, and school board and superintendent associations.

One such group, the National School Boards Association, offers a guidebook for trustees to help navigate the process of building and maintaining relationships with schools’ chiefs.

Tom Gentzel, the executive director and CEO of the National School Boards Association, said trustees must carefully weigh their First Amendment rights and speaking out on behalf of their communities against how they speak of the superintendent, especially in public. Board members should always confer with their district’s legal counsel while in sensitive conflicts with the superintendent in order to best safeguard their behavior from putting the school system at risk of further litigation, he said.

That’s not to say that trustees and superintendents who are always in perfect harmony is ideal either, Gentzel said. The healthiest board-superintendent relationships are those in which people can respectfully disagree and debate important issues. What’s vital when there is disagreement, he said, is for trustees and superintendents to monitor how serious a rift really is before widening it to an unbridgeable gulf.

“You’re not dysfunctional if you disagree. You’re dysfunctional if you can’t make a decision,” Gentzel said. “Disagreement can be healthy if it’s done in the right environment.”

Library Intern Briana Brockett-Richmond contributed to this story.

Image by Getty

A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.