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Oak Harbor school board seeks end to acrimony

OAK HARBOR - School board members in this northwest Ohio city have tried a variety of tactics in an attempt to change their sometimes volatile meetings.

They've met with a mediator from the Ohio School Boards Association, placed a five-minute limit on public comment, and hired a police officer to stand guard while they meet. Their latest attempt at peace was to hire a Cleveland law firm that specializes in education law to provide assistance in eliminating disruptions. The firm will be paid up to $10,000 for advice.

“The meetings still, to a certain point, are confrontational at times,” said Charles Burns, superintendent of the Benton-Carroll-Salem school district. “Issues that are brought up are not directly related to school business.

“I think the school board wants to be able to have meetings and focus on the operation of the school system, not allegations of certain people,” Mr. Burns said.

One of the first jobs for the law firm, Britton, McGowan, Smith, Peters, & Kalail, will be to review a draft resolution that is directed at Elsebeth Baumgartner, who is a lawyer and wife of school board member Joe Baumgartner.

Ms. Baumgartner, the district's leading critic, has filed a series of lawsuits and complaints against school and public officials in Ottawa County, alleging slander, assault, and money mismanagement.

The latest complaint, which was filed last month in Ottawa County, is a civil suit that seeks damages from school officials, the county prosecutor and his wife, the Oak Harbor police chief, as well as private citizens.

Other complaints have been transferred from the local court level to the appellate court in Toledo.

The school's draft resolution, which could be discussed at the district's Sept. 26 meeting, seeks to direct Ms. Baumgartner's questions and comments of school officials and employees to the district's attorneys.

“It's not an effort to muzzle anyone,” Mr. Burns said. “It's simply an effort to keep the meetings focused on school issues. That's all we want to do.”

Mr. Burns estimated that legal fees in the past few years involving complaints from Ms. Baumgartner have cost the district at least $60,000 to fight.

Rob Delane, a deputy director of the Ohio School Boards Association, said the law firm might be able to help mediate for the district. He said it's helpful for districts like Benton-Carroll-Salem to investigate various options to solve disputes.

“In my opinion, boards need to sit down like a team and say what are our problems, how can we mend fences?” Mr. Delane said. “I can only speculate they're looking for any avenue open to them to help solve a problem so people see them as a cohesive unit working for kids.”

Ms. Baumgartner, who could not be reached for comment, has filed to run for a seat on the school board in November.

She is one of six candidates who are seeking for three open positions.

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