After hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars and three time-consuming court appeals, the Akron Board of Education is expected to follow a legal order today and rehire a former employee — then immediately fire him again.
That move is expected to restart legal wrangling over whether Scott Bennett should work for Akron Public Schools.
District officials say they will be breaking state law when they rehire Bennett, a former groundskeeper who was fired in 2009 for allegedly falsifying his application from 2006. The termination came after a criminal background check surfaced that showed an assault charge that, according to state law, would prohibit Bennett from working in the district.
The Akron Civil Service Commission, however, ordered the board to reinstate Bennett with back pay, now totaling $150,000. District courts (twice) and the Ohio Supreme Court have upheld that directive.
“It’s the craziest thing I’ve ever heard,” Superintendant David James said.
“We’re in the proverbial position of [between] the rock and the hard place,” added board President Jason Haas.
The case could have statewide ramifications.
Legal counsel on both sides say each appellate decision has set a precedent that could exempt future employees who are in a similar situation from adhering to a state-mandated background check.
James and the APS board commissioned Rhonda Porter, the district’s general counsel, to investigate Bennett’s past should he ever be rehired.
“The board can consider anything that is relevant in the interest of the safety of children,” Porter said.
She said the case has been time-consuming for her and for outside attorneys hired to assist in the appeals.
Porter said the district hired an outside firm to track down Bennett’s criminal history, trying to ferret out partially sealed case files from police departments in Akron, Medina, Fairlawn, Cuyahoga Falls, Sagamore Hills, Barberton and Coventry and from Summit County courts.
Porter and the school officials say that what they have found, along with complaints from co-workers and observations from Bennett’s supervisor, give them pause from simply rehiring Bennett and ending the costly legal battle.
“The court records scream, ‘Be careful about this guy,’ ” Porter said. “If there is any doubt, we weigh in the favor of the kids.”
Bennett, a 49-year-old Akron resident, refutes nearly ever word spoken against him.
The reason cited for his termination was for lying on his application, but he says the document the board produced in each court case was fabricated. It lists no other offense beyond disorderly conduct and a dangling comma followed by three empty lines. Bennett said the real document did not provide enough room to list all offenses.
Bennett said the board and his previous supervisor, Facilities Director Kenneth Phares, have been out to get him because he would not condone theft and misuse of time rampant in the grounds department.
“I just couldn’t accept what was going on and I became a black sheep because I refused to be a part of it,” Bennett said.
Those claims have “absolutely zero truth,” Phares said. “He never informed on anything here … Never heard one word about that, ever.”
Bennett said police officers, school administrators and board members conspired to have him fired. He asserts that most Akron area police officers are good, but he added that some officers have tried to use diversionary tactics to discredit his character.
“Not only am I special warfare and military — trained in special warfare, trained in psychological warfare — you’re not going to use a diversionary tactic on me,” he said about one Fairlawn police officer who pulled him over in 2008.
Bennett’s attorney, Richard Kutuchief, said the long legal depute boils down to one thing: “Sometimes you win and sometimes you lose. And in this case, the Board of Education lost.”
Not rehiring Bennett has been “a continued effort to deny justice to my client. If Scott Bennett would have lost, what would he have to do? He would have to follow the law. What is our system of justice when the board flagrantly does not follow the order of the court?”
Setting a precedent
Porter and Kutuchief agree on at least one thing: the high courts’ decisions might have set a precedent future employees could use to avoid a 2007 state law that requires any nonlicensed employee to undergo a background check.
“They pressed the matter that led to the precedent,” Kutuchief said of the district’s three appeals.
John Charlton, spokesman for the Ohio Department of Education, affirms that the board must comply with the courts’ rulings.
“Our legal counsel here said that if that’s what the judge says, than that’s what you have to do,” Charlton said.
But in order to hire Bennett, or any other employee, a background check must be done. And school officials contend that Bennett’s 1988 guilty plea, which reduced a felonious assault charge to an assault charge, would trigger a hearing in which Bennett would have to show that he has been rehabilitated.
Bennett says he will never step into the district’s “kangaroo court.” And his attorney says he’ll never have to.
“You know how I know that? The 9th District Court of Appeals said so,” Kutuchief said.
To make room for Bennett in his old department, Phares told his crew Thursday that one man’s salary would be cut 20 percent and another could be let go or transferred.
A dozen employees in the grounds department who worked with Bennett have drafted a letter that states his re-employment would “create a hostile and unsafe work environment.”
The letter’s authors write that Bennett has made personal and serious threats.
The district’s human resources office is waiting for Bennett to schedule a time to sign the paperwork for his reinstatement. But Bennett said his attorney has advised him to not talk to human resources or other APS staff.
“What they’re going to do is bring me back in and then turn around and fire me again. I know that. But I won’t give up,” Bennett said.
Doug Livingston can be reached at 330-996-3792 or email@example.com.