Niles schools and board sued for $4M

WARREN — Niles City Schools and the Board of Education are being sued for $4 million by terminated teacher Christopher Chieffo and his wife, Abbey Chieffo, who still teaches there.

The Chieffos claim Superintendent Ann Marie Thigpen and her husband, Michael Thigpen, as well as Board of Education President Susan Longacre, invaded their privacy, and also claim school board members engaged in group texts in May 2016 that implied they had chosen a high school principal before an interview process occurred.

The lawsuit, filed Monday in the Trumbull County Court of Common Pleas, seeks $4 million or $250,000 from each of the defendants listed. It states a number of acts against the Chieffos were committed, including civil fraud, defamation, invasion of privacy, civil conspiracy and interference with a business relationship.

Thigpen said she’s reviewed the lawsuit and the district looks forward to responding to the complaint with an attorney through the legal system.

“When you’re in the middle of pending litigation it would be inappropriate to speak to things specifically,” she said.

Megan Zidian, an attorney who represents the district, didn’t return a call seeking comment. Others listed in the lawsuit, including Longacre, board Vice President Mary Ann McMahon, board members Rebecca Depanicis and Bobby Seifert, middle school Principal Sam Reigle, Dean of Students Brian McConnell and Michael Thigpen, didn’t return calls seeking comment. Teacher Michael Guarnieri, the former high school principal listed in the suit, couldn’t be reached for comment and board member Tony Perrone said he just learned of the lawsuit and hasn’t reviewed it.

Christopher Chieffo, 45, was terminated Jan. 18 by the Board of Education after being accused of using sick time while he was coaching boys golf for Howland Local Schools during an October tournament. He is now appealing the termination and the suit states that the district made defamatory statements when it said he misused or falsified sick time.

Other accusations in the suit paint a picture of internal conflict among the Chieffos, administration and board and an atmosphere in which other employees were favored or selected for jobs they weren’t qualified for.

Longacre, McMahon, Perrone and Thigpen were all part of a group text in May 2016 in which Longacre and McMahon inferred Guarnieri was hired as principal even though an interview process hadn’t yet occurred, the suit states. Perrone told the other members in a later group text that they needed to recuse themselves from the interview process in light of their previous texts, the suit states, but they never did.

In June 2016, Christopher Chieffo, who had applied for the position of high school principal, approached Thigpen about the integrity of the hiring process, the suit states, and he told her board members had already decided to hire Guarnieri. Thigpen denied the accusation, the suit states, yet six hours later she sent out a district-wide email announcing he was hired.

Guarnieri, whose principal license was eight days old when he took the job, served as principal for less than 30 days before resigning and stepping back into a teaching role, the suit states.

The suit also claims Thigpen’s husband, who owns an excavating company, didn’t take kindly to the Chieffos “badmouthing” his wife and the Thigpens were angered when the Chieffos hired another excavating company to prepare soil for a small patio and they interfered with the process.

Union members questioned McConnell’s qualifications to serve as guidance counselor because he didn’t hold a guidance counselor license, the suit states, and they said the position should be posted so qualified candidates could apply. Rather than post the position, Thigpen eliminated it, the suit states, and created a new position of “dean of students” that she gave to McConnell.

In July 2017, Longacre sent vulgar text messages to the Chieffos on their wedding night because she wasn’t invited, the suit states, and she continued to rant through texts to a third party about not being invited and how the Chieffos have the distinction of being the first to betray her.

“(Abbey Chieffo) had a lot of courage to come forward considering some of the things that have already happened to her and her husband,” Kelly Newbrough, an attorney representing the Chieffos said. “As a married couple, they’ve had it and they are going to show courage and fight.”