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Published: Friday, 6/30/2006

Suit targets 3 on TPS board

BY MARK REITER
BLADE STAFF WRITER
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A key member of a Toledo Public Schools watchdog group and longtime critic of the district yesterday accused three board members of gathering in secret to form the coalition 3 for Children.

Steven Flagg filed a lawsuit in Lucas County Common Pleas Court against Deborah Barnett, Larry Sykes, and Steven Steel, accusing the trio of meeting behind closed doors in violation of Ohio s open meetings statute.

The lawsuit, which was assigned to Judge James Jensen, alleges that the board members violated the state Sunshine Law by discussing privately, without sending notice to the media, the planning and executing of the formation of the coalition.

The Sunshine Law, also known as the Open Meetings Act, requires public bodies to open meetings to the public and is designed so public officials can t discuss business in secret.

In announcing the coalition, dubbed 3 for Children, Ms. Barnett, board vice president, Mr. Sykes, and Mr. Steel said it was their intention to make progress in the district.

Mr. Steel said it was a way to take an initiative aimed at students and not politics, grandstanding, and extremist views about education.

The statement referred to the actions of board President Darlene Fisher and board member Robert Torres, who campaigned last year for their seats under the slogan 3 for Change.

Mr. Flagg is a member of the Urban Coalition, a TPS watchdog group that has campaigned against past levy requests, and co-president of the Local Parents for Public Schools, a group to which Ms. Fisher belongs.

He was among members of the Urban Coalition who were banned last year from speaking at TPS meetings.

However, Stephen Hartman, an attorney representing Mr. Flagg, said his client wasn t motivated by politics or attempting to control the operations of the school district.

This is about the fact that public business must be done in public and not behind closed doors, he said.

Mr. Sykes said the allegations made by Mr. Flagg in the complaint were incorrect and without merit. He said the coalition was formed after he talked on the phone with Ms. Barnett, and she sent some ideas to Mr. Steel via e-mail.

We had talked about it, not together, but just back and forth, about how do we resolve this problem we have, Mr. Sykes said. It got to be very ugly, so Deborah said, Why don t we form a coalition and do what s best for the district?

At no point in time were all three of us together, either in person or on the telephone, he said.

The news conference announcing the coalition had been organized by a volunteer, Mr. Sykes said.

Mr. Flagg is asking the court to award damages of $500 for each violation of the open meetings law and invalidate any resolution, rule, or action that was taken in an unlawful meeting.

Staff writer Ignazio Messina contributed to this report.

Contact Mark Reiter at: markreiter@theblade.com or 419-213-2134.



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