Not So Civil Service

Stephen Funk joined the board of education to improve local schools. He didn’t expect the riots.

Published in 2007 Ohio Rising Stars magazine

By David Searls on June 18, 2007


Stephen Funk was as well-equipped as one could be for a term on the Hudson School Board. His public law background, which included representing educational clients, was the ideal training for dealing with local bureaucracies and thorny community issues.

But nothing could have prepared him for the pepper spray.

Still, Funk, partner and litigator with Roetzel & Andress’ Cleveland and Akron offices, looks back fondly on his days as an elected public servant on the board of education in the (usually) serene village of Hudson from 2004 to 2006. “I really enjoyed it and I’d do it again,” he says.

In Ohio’s public education structure, local residents “hire” school board members in elections. Then, says Funk, “the board hires the superintendent, and the superintendent hires the principals.”

A good, sensible system. But what if the superintendent yanks a popular principal, and the board has limited power to intervene?

“According to the Ohio Revised Code, it’s the superintendent who makes [hiring/firing] decisions,” Funk explains. “We could only affirm or disaffirm, and it would take a super-majority to disaffirm.”

In fact, the super-majority went the other way. When the three-year contract of Hudson High’s principal came up for review before the 2005-2006 school year, the superintendent decided against renewal. Following a closed-door executive session, the board agreed and voted 5-0 to affirm.

To respect the principal’s confidentiality rights, the decision was made in private. Even today, Funk will only say that the school’s leader was “nonresponsive to a list of problems.”

That’s not the way the kids saw it.

“[The principal] was one of those people you just aspired to be like when you got older,” says D.J. DeLeo, a college student today, and the president of his Hudson High School class when the protests erupted. “[He] embraced our culture.” Like others, DeLeo felt the school board “really dropped the ball. We didn’t know their criteria [for nonrenewing].”

Some students even kicked up dust with a Web site and a grassroots effort to recall the board, even though it was disallowed by state law.

Then came the March 2005 school walkout and subsequent march to the board of education offices. About 400 students participated in the protest, which deteriorated when some of them began pounding on the office’s doors and windows. When police tried to disperse the rally, bottles and snowballs were thrown, and the protest ended with pepper spray and arrests.

As a public law litigator, Funk had seen hotheaded democracy in action before, albeit from a safer distance.

He has defended police officers against accusations of excessive use of force, backed a school board against a zoning challenge and fought in defense of the constitutionality of Ohio’s not exactly popular vehicular emissions-testing program.

Funk earned his law degree at Harvard, joined the U.S. Department of Justice as a trial attorney and was promoted to senior litigation counsel, and went on to practice constitutional, business and public law litigation in northeast Ohio.

His political stint wasn’t a career move by any means. He and his wife, Tracy Thomas, a professor of law at the University of Akron, have two young children. They settled in Hudson and Funk got involved with the schools as a way of ensuring their kids’ and the community’s educational future. Funk won election to the board in November 2003.

It was a good fit, says former Hudson School Board president Andy Duff. “Stephen is very thoughtful and level-headed. He’s even-tempered and more than willing to discuss matters.”

The fuss died down. The disorderly students made bail and were probably grounded. Funk kept his friends and got a few dirty looks at the supermarket. All in all, he enjoyed his civic experience, and says he might run for office again.

But he does find his day job comparatively uncomplicated these days. “It’s easier being the attorney,” Funk says.

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