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A blind school board trustee is suing the Cotati-Rohnert Park school district for allegedly refusing to allow a special aide to assist him at meetings.

In the suit, Tim Nonn, who was elected to the school board in November, argued the district violated state and federal disability discrimination laws when it barred Janet Lowery, a retired special education teacher who volunteers as his reader and scribe, from sitting next to him at school board meetings.

The lawsuit was filed late Wednesday in U.S. District Court in San Francisco.

Lowery also was prohibited from assisting him during a school visit, Nonn said Thursday.

He said, however, school board officials never gave him “one reason why she cannot be my aide,” adding that it would not cost the district any money to have Lowery serve as his reader.

The suit also named Superintendent Robert Haley and school board members Tracy Farrell, Marc Orloff and Jennifer Wiltermood as defendants. Nonn is seeking unspecified “damages” against the four defendants plus attorney’s fees and costs.

According to the lawsuit, the defendants “jointly refused” to let Lowery sit next to Nonn at his first board meeting on Dec. 13 and “decided to adjourn the meeting to avoid a discussion of the dispute on the record.”

The Press Democrat attempted to independently verify those allegations, but the video recording posted on the district’s website had no audio for that portion of the meeting. District officials did not respond to questions about why the audio was off.

Farrell said in an email she did not have a copy of the lawsuit and could not comment on it. However, she said the district has been working on accommodating Nonn.

“Staff, at our direction, have been researching accommodations for him. We have provided technology solutions and training for the use of technology,” Farrell wrote in the email.

She said the district also reached out to the state Department of Rehabilitation and the Earle Baum Center, a Santa Rosa-based nonprofit that serves the blind.

“The process of developing reasonable accommodations is interactive and ongoing,” Farrell wrote.

In a statement, Nonn said his only goal is to “become the most effective trustee I can possibly be to serve as a strong advocate for students and an ally of teachers. But I need equal access to materials presented during public board meetings in order to function fully as a trustee.”

Timothy Elder, a Fremont attorney who specializes in disability discrimination cases and is representing Nonn, said the district suggested his client turn to school employees and fellow board members for assistance at meetings. But that’s not practical, he said, as district employees and trustees are untrained, sit too far from Nonn and are busy filling their own duties during the meetings.

Nonn, an outspoken critic of Haley, was diagnosed two decades ago with open angle glaucoma. He previously suffered from blindness in his left eye but lost much of his vision in the right eye after a surgery in September, according to the suit. Unable to see print, Nonn has relied on Lowery to access all sorts of materials, including documents and presentations.

While the district did provide some assistance, including machine-readable electronic documents for his computer, Nonn said it doesn’t go far enough. He needs help with materials presented at the meeting, particularly those presented for the first time or ones that have been updated.

“I am blind. I need my independent aide to sit next to me and help me access information at public school board meetings,” Nonn said. “Why can’t we just pull up an extra chair to the table?”

Relying on district employees violates Nonn’s privacy, Elder argued. It also hinders the trustee’s ability to remain politically independent if he’s depending on school board trustees and district employees to feed him information, he said.

“Mr. Nonn is supposed to be independent of the school board,” Elder said. “He’s a trustee and has some accountability. It would not be appropriate to be using a school district employee in this way.”

He said Nonn had to abstain from a vote at a previous meeting because he could not see the material presented on the district’s budget.

“It’s frustrated him a great deal. He’s not able to fully function in the role he was intending to function in and in the role voters wanted him to function in,” Elder said, adding that having Lowery at the table is a “common sense solution.”

“This is the exactly reasonable modification that the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) contemplates,” he said. “There is really no alternative that is going to be effective for Mr. Nonn during board meetings.

“This doesn’t change the nature of the meeting. Mrs. Lowery is not given a microphone or given the right to participate in the meeting.”

You can reach Staff Writer Eloísa Ruano González at 707-521-5458 or eloisa.gonzalez@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @eloisanews.

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