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Elizabeth Wilson, Karl Singleton v. Board of Control of the City of Harrisburg School District

December 2, 2010

ELIZABETH WILSON, KARL SINGLETON, SHIRLEY JACKSON, AND KIA HANSARD
PLAINTIFFS
v.
BOARD OF CONTROL OF THE CITY OF HARRISBURG SCHOOL DISTRICT, CALOBE JACKSON, JR., LES FORD, BRAD FUREY, TRENT HARGROVE, CLARE JONES, AND DR. GERALD KOHN DEFENDANTS



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Christopher C. Conner United States District Judge

(Judge Conner)

MEMORANDUM

This is a civil rights action filed by four former members of the Harrisburg School District School Board, Elizabeth Wilson, Karl Singleton, Shirley Jackson, and Kia Hansard (collectively "School Board plaintiffs") against the Board of Control of the City of Harrisburg School District, Calobe Jackson, Jr., Les Ford, Brad Furey, Trent Hargrove, Clare Jones, and Dr. Gerald Kohn (collectively "Board of Control") alleging retaliation, conspiracy, and malicious abuse of process in violation of plaintiffs' First and Fourteenth Amendment rights. Presently before the court is a motion (Doc. 20) to dismiss plaintiffs' amended complaint filed by defendants pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). For the reasons that follow, the court will grant the motion.

I. BACKGROUND

A. Statement of Facts*fn1

The present action is the latest iteration of litigation in a long-standing and acrimonious feud between members of the elected School Board of Harrisburg School District, and the appointed Board of Control for the Harrisburg School District. The plaintiffs are former members of the elected School Board for Harrisburg School District and the defendants are the Board of Control of the Harrisburg School District, its individual members (when the cause of action purportedly accrued), and the former Superintendent of the Harrisburg School District, Dr. Gerald Kohn. The strife between the parties stems from the passage of the Pennsylvania Education Empowerment Act ("EEA"), 24 PA. STAT. ANN. §§ 17-1701-B through 17-1716-B, by the Pennsylvania General Assembly in May 2000.

The Pennsylvania General Assembly passed the EEA in 2000 in an attempt to improve the lackluster educational performance of certain school districts within the Commonwealth. Under the EEA, school districts with extraordinary low test performance levels for two consecutive years are certified as "empowerment districts" by the Secretary of Education.*fn2 In an empowerment district, the mayor of the city in which the school district is located appoints five members of the community to a Board of Control who serve at the mayor's pleasure. 24 PA. STAT. ANN. § 17-1707-B(b). Two additional members of the Board of Control are elected by and from the school district's elected school board. Id.

The Board of Control develops and implements a school district improvement plan. Id. § 17-1704-B. Save for the power to levy taxes, the Board of Control is vested with "all other powers and duties conferred by law" on the elected school board. Id. § 17-1706-B(a); id. § 17-1707-B(c). When an education empowerment district emerges from the statutorily-defined low test performance range and satisfies the goals of the district improvement plan, the certification of the district as an empowerment district is removed and control of the school district returns to the elected school board. Id. § 17-1707-B(f).

The Harrisburg School District became an empowerment district on December 19, 2000. See Bd. of Control of the Harrisburg Sch. Dist. v. Wilson, 82 Pa.

D. & C.4th 545, 566, No. 2006 CV 3443 EQ, 2006 WL 4821440 (Pa. Com. Pl. 2006); see also Harrisburg Sch. Dist. v. Zogby, 828 A.2d 1079 (Pa. 2003) (upholding EEA against federal and state constitutional challenge). In the summer of 2006, plaintiffs were serving as elected members of the School Board for Harrisburg School District ("School Board"). (Doc. 18 ¶ 7). As a result of the school district's classification as an empowerment district, the sole power retained by the elected board was its tax levying authority. Defendants Board of Control directed School Board plaintiffs to approve a SWAP.*fn3 (Id. ¶¶ 9-14, 17). When School Board plaintiffs requested further information to aid their decision on the SWAP, the Board of Control refused to provide it. (Id. ¶¶ 18-19). Instead, the Board of Control redirected the School Board to approve the SWAP and forbade debate concerning its ramifications on residents and the School District. (Id. ¶¶ 20-21). The Board of Control defendants threatened School Board plaintiffs that unless they approved the SWAP, the Board of Control would initiate proceedings to remove School Board plaintiffs from office. (Id. ¶ 22). The School Board plaintiffs refused to approve the SWAP. (Id. ¶ 23).

Subsequently, the Board of Control filed a lawsuit in the Dauphin County Court of Common Pleas of Pennsylvania to remove School Board plaintiffs from their elected positions. (Id.) School Board plaintiffs allege that their removal from the School Board was needless because the Board of Control obtained a legal opinion from their solicitor and an opinion from the Mayor of Harrisburg that the School Board's approval was unnecessary to authorize the SWAP. (Id. ¶¶ 34, 35).

By court order on October 9, 2006, the Dauphin County Court of Common Pleas removed plaintiffs from the School Board, assessed a judgment of $48,000.00 against them, and established a $100,000.00 cash bond to appeal the decision. (Id. ¶

24). School Board plaintiffs sought to appeal, but according to plaintiffs, the Board of Control refused to authorize the Pennsylvania School Boards' Association Insurance Trust to continue representation of School Board plaintiffs. (Id. ¶ 25). Various members of the Harrisburg community sprang to School Board plaintiffs' aid and an appeal was timely filed. (Id. ¶¶ 26-27).

The Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania reversed the lower court's ruling on November 9, 2007. (Id. ¶ 28). However the reversal came after the expiration of School Board plaintiffs' elected terms and too late for plaintiffs to submit the necessary nomination papers to pursue re-election to the Board. (Id. ¶ 29). School Board plaintiffs allege that despite the fact that the SWAP had been approved by the School Board, including plaintiffs' replacements, the Board of Control continued to pursue the litigation after the reversal. (Id. ¶ 30). The Board of Control filed an application for reconsideration of the reversal, and on December 25, 2007, the Commonwealth Court denied that application. (Id.) Undeterred, the Board ...


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