Howard council concerned about school board member's lawsuits

Member Dyer's suits against board straining schools' legal budget, some say

May 13, 2011|By Joe Burris, The Baltimore Sun

Howard County lawmakers say they are concerned about the cost of the legal complaints brought against the Board of Education by member Allen Dyer, who according to the school system's legal office has filed more than a dozen lawsuits in two years.

County Council members raised the issue at a Thursday meeting, as the school system outlined its operating and capital budget for next school year. The council offered a few questions about budget details — including the status of the proposed site for an elementary school in Elkridge set to be built by 2013. The decision to go forward with the school is currently being hampered by the possibility that a CSX intermodal rail station will be built near the site.

Yet Dyer's lawsuits against the board triggered the most objections from the council. Dyer says all of his suits have been brought because of his concerns that the board was not complying with the law.

According to documents released by the school system, the board spent $17,683 in legal fees to fight a suit Dyer filed last October that involved retaining the board's electronic correspondence. That is the most any suit has cost since Dyer has served on the board, and school officials say they're projecting an additional $15,000 to be spent to address amendments to the case that are still pending.

In 2001, the board spent $372,755 fighting an Open Meetings Act lawsuit filed by Dyer, the first suit he filed against the board. He was not a member of the panel at that time. School board officials say that the board has spent a total of $443,860.52 to fight cases against Dyer. Officials say that does not include cases where Dyer, an attorney, represented other plaintiffs in cases against the school system.

Council member Courtney Watson brought up the lawsuits while examining the school system's legal fees. She asked school board Chairwoman Janet Siddiqui whether Siddiqui expected the school system to be over budget in legal fees this year.

Siddiqui replied, "It's getting quite tight." She added that the school system began the academic year with $220,000 in its legal fees budget but has about $36,000 remaining, with two active suits against the board. Siddiqui said that both active suits were brought by Dyer — who was seated alongside other board members behind Siddiqui.

Watson later said, "We have some information — I assume that this is accurate — that there have been 13 separate complaints filed against the board by Mr. Dyer since 2009." Watson was referring to information that the council had received from the school system's legal office outlining Dyer's lawsuits, and she noted that some of the lawsuits were amendments to previous lawsuits, which Siddiqui confirmed.

Watson also noted that about six of the grievances had been resolved and asked Siddiqui, "For the ones that have been resolved, they've all been resolved in the board's favor?"

"Correct," Siddiqui replied. Watson then asked whether Siddiqui believed Dyer's "pattern" of filing lawsuits against the board would continue, and Siddiqui replied, "We have not been advised that it would not."

Siddiqui added that addressing Dyer's complaints "takes additional staff time."

Asked on Friday whether he will continue to file lawsuits against the board, Dyer said, "Whether or not I file suits is directly related to whether or not I feel it's appropriate to ask the court to rule on whether or not the board of education, on which I serve, is complying with the law."

Watson said during the meeting Thursday, "From my perspective, I'm concerned about two things. One: taxpayer dollars being spent to defend the board against lawsuits from a board member who apparently has a pattern of [filing] these lawsuits that have not succeeded; and two: I can imagine how much time it's taking on board members and staff, and the distraction it is causing. What I would like to see is the spending of taxpayer dollars to defend lawsuits by Mr. Dyer to stop. The only way I see that they can stop is if the lawsuits stop.

"I recommend to Mr. Dyer that he consider another venue or another approach to having his concerns heard by the rest of the board."

Moments later, Dyer stood up and addressed the matter, questioning whether the settled cases were indeed decided in the board's favor.

"I think that what you're talking about are disagreements among the board and how you deal with them," Dyer said. "There are a lot of disagreements that exist where there is no legal action even considered because it's a matter of policy or how we do things," said Dyer. "The lawsuits that have been filed have been filed strictly for compliance with the law."

Dyer was momentarily interrupted by the council when he attempted to go over each case. But he later said that many suits have been unsuccessful on technical grounds.

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