A newly elected trustee at the Cotati-Rohnert Park Unified School District is suing the district in federal court this week over what he says is an ongoing violation of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
Timothy Nonn was elected to the five-member district board in November, positioning himself as a reform candidate opposed to a district-wide referendum, Measure C, the $80 million construction bond supported by other board members and superintendent Robert Haley. The bond measure passed in November and will be used for lead and asbestos remediation, and other classroom upgrades. Nonn, who is legally blind, says his issue with the district started after he was elected to the board and attended an orientation meeting and brought his own, unpaid aide to assist him. District Superintendent Haley, he says, denied him the use of this personal aide. Now Nonn says he’s “in a big battle with the district’s lawyers,” who, he says, are denying his right to a reasonable accommodation of his disability under the ADA.
Nonn says he again tried to bring his aide to his first board meeting, on Dec. 15, for his swearing in. But he says Haley wouldn’t let the aide into the meeting, and that he received a “threatening letter” on Dec. 20 from the district that said it “would enact legal action against me if I bring in an aide again.”
Nonn says the ADA demands an “interactive process” between a disabled individual and his or her employer, but Haley argues that “interactive” is a two-way street and that the district was, and is, under no obligation to agree to an aide of Nonn’s choosing. Haley says the district has made several efforts to accommodate Nonn’s disability.
In response to the rejection of his aide, Nonn hired an ADA compliance attorney, who, he says, is being paid by the National Federation for the Blind, based in Baltimore. Nonn’s lawyer, Timothy Elder, filed suit against the school district in the Fourth District court this week.
Nonn’s legal contention is, “Yes, I have the right to pick an aide under the ADA.” The district’s response is, “No, you don’t.” The legal issue may turn on whether Nonn is an employee of the district—he’s an elected official who receives a stipend for his service to the board.
The Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice offered guidance in 2011 to address the so-called effective communication rule, which was enacted to make sure a person with a vision, hearing or speech disability is provided with reasonable accommodation: “For people who are blind, have vision loss, or are deaf-blind, this includes providing a qualified reader; information in large print, Braille, or electronically for use with a computer screen-reading program; or an audio recording of printed information. A ‘qualified’ reader means someone who is able to read effectively, accurately, and impartially, using any necessary specialized vocabulary.”
Haley says the issue for him and the school board is all about process, as he acknowledges that Nonn has been a longstanding critic of his. In an interview, Nonn criticized Haley’s time as superintendent in St. Helena and Sebastopol, but Haley insists there’s nothing personal about the decision to nix Nonn’s aide in favor of a process that would give the board input into the selection of the aide.
Compliance with the demands of the ADA, Haley stresses—whether it’s for students or faculty or administrators—is an interactive process. That means “nobody can make unilateral demands” and “no unilateral demands have to be accepted” by the board.
Instead of his own personal aide, Haley offered Nonn the use of a district secretary, an administrative assistant. Nonn says the offer was rescinded and that the district’s latest offer was to hire a dedicated aide for Nonn. He says that would be fine—if the district would actually hire the person.
In a recent letter to Rohnert Park’s Community Voice, Nonn’s chosen aide, Janet Lowery, wrote, “I am highly qualified to assist people with disabilities, as I have had a career working with disabled adults and children in colleges and secondary schools.”
The district’s view is that they tried to meet Nonn halfway in suggesting a district staffer for the aide’s role. “So far he has rejected using her,” Haley wrote in an email to the Bohemian. “As a school district, we are very conscious about providing reasonable accommodations and continuing the process. I also want to make it clear that it is the board of trustees that makes decisions regarding conduct of trustees at meetings, not the superintendent. This is contrary to some statements Trustee Nonn has made.”
Nonn charges that the issue of the aide works to Haley’s ultimate advantage; three months after being elected, he still doesn’t have an aide. The superintendent, he says, has the ongoing support of three of five board members, whose refusal to accept his self-selected aide means Nonn is “obstructed from functioning fully as a trustee. I am not being given equal access, and the effect is that I’m not able to work fully as a trustee, and that works to [Haley’s] benefit.
“I’m working to reform the district,” he adds, and says his move to sue the district was not taken lightly, given that he ran in part because of what he calls the district’s outsized legal bills.
Haley says his mandate as superintendent “is to make sure we follow the process.” He’s been on the radio lately in an effort to drum up new students for the district, in an open-enrollment period that goes through the end of the month.
The district, says Haley, has gone out of its way to assist Nonn with disability-appropriate technology. They bought a new computer with voice-recognition software designed to ease his way as a trustee. Nonn says he hopes the suit will leverage a favorable outcome for him, whether it’s his own selected aide or one that’s hired by the district. He’s convinced that there’s politics at play, but Haley says the conflict is a question of a process that he insists has to be abided, regardless of whatever backdrop of politics is charged or implied.
“It’s true that trustee Nonn has attended board meetings for years,” Haley says, “and he’s been critical of me as superintendent. That’s our system. It’s robust, and I have no problem with that.”
Sonoma County is staying out of this one. Victoria Willard, ADA compliance officer with the county, had no comment. Nonn’s lawyer planned to file paperwork with the federal appeals court this week. In the meantime, he continues to serve without an aide.