ILLINOIS SUPREME COURT DETERMINES SCHOOL BOARDS ARE OWED DEFERENCE OVER HEARING OFFICERS IN TENURED TEACHER DISMISSAL CASES

By James A. Petrungaro and Anthony Scariano III

 January 6, 2017

             In a decision with vast implications for schools statewide, the Illinois Supreme Court recently determined that although hearing officers play an important role in tenured teacher dismissal cases, the school board’s decision on a hearing officer’s findings and the tenured teacher’s continued employment is entitled to deference.

            The facts in Beggs v. Bd. of Educ. of Murphysboro Comm. Unit Sch. Dist. No. 186, are quite detailed and lengthy, far too much to discuss at length in this bulletin. In short, the school board did not agree with the hearing officer’s findings of fact and ultimate recommendation that the tenured teacher at-issue should be reinstated, notwithstanding the teacher’s work attendance issues. Accordingly, pursuant to Section 24-12(d)(8) of the School Code, the school board supplemented the hearing officer’s findings of fact and modified them. The school board also made a final decision to dismiss the tenured teacher despite the hearing officer’s recommendation that the teacher be reinstated. Obviously unhappy with the school board’s overturning of the hearing officer’s recommendation, the tenured teacher filed a lawsuit in circuit court seeking administrative review of the school board’s final decision. After the Circuit Court reversed the school board’s decision, and the Appellate Court agreed with the Circuit Court, the school board appealed to the Illinois Supreme Court.

            The majority of the Supreme Court’s focus was on the Appellate Court’s opinion that the hearing officer’s decision, not the school board’s, should be given deference when reviewing tenured teacher dismissal cases. Ultimately, the Supreme Court determined that the plain language of Section 24-12 of the School Code provides that the school board’s decision is final for purposes of administrative review. Therefore, the Supreme Court reviewed the school board’s supplemental factual findings in addition to the hearing officer’s findings when determining the correctness of the school board’s decision.

            Ultimately, The Supreme Court found that the overwhelming majority of the school board’s factual findings were against the manifest weight of the evidence (i.e., not credible), and the school board’s decision to dismiss the teacher was therefore clearly erroneous. The decision therefore serves as a reminder that school boards intending to refute and ignore an ISBE hearing officer’s findings of fact and recommendation to reinstate a tenured teacher should be wary that those decisions will be reviewed with careful scrutiny by the Court. Nevertheless, the Court’s decision regarding the deference owed to school boards (as opposed to hearing officers) in teacher dismissal cases sets important and valuable precedent for boards of education.  As always, if you are faced with a situation regarding potential discipline of a tenured teacher, we are here to guide you through that process.