Lawsuit argues Forest Hills school board vote to require masks violated Open Meetings Act

Posted at 12:46 PM, Aug 19, 2021
and last updated 2021-08-19 20:59:18-04

CINCINNATI — A Hamilton County resident is suing a local school board over its recently adopted mask mandate.

In a suit filed in common pleas court, the unnamed individual argues that the Forest Hills Local School District's board of education violated state open meetings laws in the way members voted to require masks for kindergartners through 6th-grade students.

The suit argues that the board carried out a series of votes without giving proper notice that members would do anything more than discuss the possibility of requiring masks.

"Under the guise of 'discussing' reopening plans, the Board of Education of the Forest Hills Local School District and the board members went beyond simply 'discussing' any subject and, instead, proceeded to conduct a vote (and, in fact, multiple votes) on the specific topic...of whether students in the Forest Hills Local School District would be required to utilized (sic) facial masks," wrote attorney Curt Hartman, who filed the suit on behalf of the plaintiff.

Prior to the Aug. 11 meeting, the board had moved to recommend facial coverings but not to require them for elementary school students. By changing course during that meeting, the suit argues, the board "exceeded the scope of the stated purpose."

The lawsuit points to prior meeting descriptions that specified when discussions would be followed by a vote or votes on that issue, which this meeting description did not, the suit alleges.

The Ohio Attorney General's Office describes the type of notice that Ohio law requires for public meetings:

Public bodies must notify the public when and where each meeting will take place and must sometimes give notice of what matters will be discussed. Also, every public body must establish, by rule, a reasonable method for notifying the public in advance of meetings. There are three types of meetings, each requiring different types of notice. “Regular meetings” are held at predictable intervals, such as once a month. Public bodies must establish a reasonable method for alerting the public to the time and place of regular meetings. A “special meeting” is any other kind of meeting. Again, public bodies must establish a reasonable method for alerting the public to the time and place of special meetings, as well as the purpose of the meeting. At least 24 hours’ notice must be given to media outlets that have requested such notice, and only topics related to the stated purpose of the special meeting can be discussed. “Emergency meetings” are special meetings that are needed because a situation requires immediate action. The public body must immediately notify certain media outlets of the time, place, and purpose of the emergency meeting. As with special meetings, only topics related to the stated purpose of the meeting can be discussed. ORC 121.22(F).

The suit calls on a judge to issue a temporary injunction on the board's decision to require masks for elementary students.

Forest Hills Local School District's board is not alone in changing course: Multiple districts across the Tri-State have made 11th-hour decisions to enhance their mask policy from a recommendation to a requirement, citing the increased spread of COVID-19 — especially among children — due to the emergence of the virus' delta variant.

Earlier this month, Gov. Andy Beshear signed an executive order requiring all Kentucky school districts — both public and private — to mandate that students and staff wear masks while inside school buildings. Attorney General Daniel Cameron quickly indicated his intent to contest the order. A day later, the Kentucky State Board of Education voted unanimously to require masks in all public schools for at least 270 days, into 2022.

Earlier this week, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine strongly urged local school districts to mandate masks but stopped short of issuing a statewide order compelling districts to do so.