LR5 school board votes to drop lawsuit against former superintendent

Gerry Melendez/

The Lexington-Richland 5 school board voted unanimously Monday to drop a lawsuit filed last year against a former superintendent.

The board instructed their attorney to drop a lawsuit filed against former Superintendent Stephen Hefner in 2021 after Hefner challenged how the school board hired an interim superintendent.

School board vice chair Ken Loveless said that when Lexington-Richland 5 authorized the lawsuit, Hefner had “attacked our accreditation by sending an unfounded complaint” to Cognia, the district’s accrediting agency. “Since then, Cognia has not taken action and has said they will not take action,” meaning district resources dedicated to the lawsuit can be better spent elsewhere, Loveless said.

A representative from Cognia told The State last November that the agency would not take action against the school district in response to Hefner’s complaint, saying it found “no grounds to justify further actions” according to its policies and procedures and the issue raised would not affect the district’s accreditation.

The board voted 4-3 two weeks later to move forward with the lawsuit, even as board members who opposed the lawsuit — Rebecca Blackburn Hines, Matt Hogan and Tifani Moore — argued the issue was moot because of Cognia’s decision. But the majority — Loveless, Nikki Gardner, Jan Hammond and Catherine Huddle — voted to move forward with the suit, with Loveless calling for a “formal apology” from Hefner.

The board voted again to proceed with the lawsuit, with the same vote breakdown, as recently as Aug. 8.

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While Hammond, the board chair, said she was “surprised” Hefner and the other officials wrote to the accrediting agency without contacting the district first, she “agreed we do not need to continue to spend one more penny on this.”

The school district filed suit against Hefner last November, claiming he had “interfered” in the management of the school district when he and other former district officials wrote a letter to Cognia asking for a review of the contract Lexington-Richland 5 had signed with its interim superintendent, Akil Ross. The letter was critical of the arrangement, in which the district contracted for “superintendent services” with Ross’s education consulting firm, HeartEd LLC, rather than hire Ross directly as a district employee.

In its suit, the school district called Hefner’s action “wrongful, malicious and politically motivated,” and claimed the letter contained “false information” that “implied wrongdoing” by Ross and the district.

Ross was named the district’s permanent superintendent in December.

At Monday’s meeting, Loveless called on Hefner to drop a counterclaim he brought against the district “so that no other resources are spent on this lawsuit.” Hefner had claimed the lawsuit was an attempt by the district to silence his First Amendment free speech rights for criticizing the board’s conduct.

Hefner served as Lexington-Richland 5’s superintendent from 2011 to 2018.