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.    

New Changes to the Teacher Reduction in Force Procedures

 July 1, 2014

By Jacqueline M. Litra

On June 13, 2014, House Bill 5546 was signed into law as Public Act 98-0648.  This Amendatory Act is the most recent amendment to Senate Bill 7. The Act significantly amends the reduction in force procedures established in SB 7 by creating recall rights for certain teachers reduced from Group Two.

Now, if a school board has any vacancies from the beginning of the term following the reduction in force through February 1 of that term, such positions must be offered to qualified teachers dismissed from Group 2 with a “Needs Improvement” evaluation rating on either of their last two evaluations.  If a teacher has more than one rating, the other rating must be proficient or better for recall rights to apply. These new recall rights do not apply to teachers rated “Unsatisfactory.” These changes apply to layoffs made during the 2013-2014 school year.

These recall rights apply to probationary teachers laid off from Group 2.  Accordingly, it is important that school districts use the non-renewal process and not the layoff process for probationary teachers who are not making the cut.

The Act codifies the fact that only one evaluation rating each term may be used for determining the sequence of honorable dismissal. If there are multiple performance evaluations during a school year (other than evaluations as part of a remediation plan), the last evaluation before the sequence of honorable dismissal list is established will be the one evaluation used. School districts may only average multiple evaluation ratings without agreement from the union.

The Act also clarifies that the sequence of honorable dismissal list, which districts are required to provide to the union at least 75 days before the end of the school year, must include teachers by name and categorized by position and group.

Your attorneys at Scariano, Himes and Petrarca stand ready to assist you in navigating the ever-changing reduction in force procedures and your re-defined responsibilities under this Act.

Time Spent as a Full-Time Substitute Teacher Does Not Count Toward Tenure

 May 31, 2013

By Parker Himes

Years spent as a full-time substitute teacher do not count toward tenure.  That was the decision reached by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in the recently decided case of Harbaugh v. Board of Education of Chicago.

Candace Harbaugh taught as a full-time substitute for the 2003-2004 school year at James G. Blaine Elementary School, which is operated by the Chicago Public School system (“CPS”), before becoming a probationary, tenure-track teacher the following year.  Harbaugh remained at Blaine for the 2004-2005 school year before teaching at another CPS school for the 2005-2006, 2006-2007, and 2007-2008 school years.  In March 2008, the school’s principal recommended that her contract not be renewed, a recommendation the Board of Education accepted.  Harbaugh could not find employment in another school in the CPS system.

 Following her termination, Harbaugh sued the Board alleging that she had achieved tenure at the beginning of the 2007 - 2008 school year and was entitled to the employment protections afforded to tenured teachers.   If Harbaugh had achieved tenure at the beginning of the 2007-2008 school year, under Illinois law, Section 34-85 of the School Code, she could be fired only for cause. Harbaugh claimed that her year spent as a full-time substitute teacher should be applied to the number of years required to achieve tenure.

 While acknowledging that Harbaugh’s functions, responsibilities, and salary as a full-time substitute were almost identical to her functions as a probationary teacher, the Court held that Illinois law distinguishes between the two classifications. The Court concluded that many aspects of employment, certification, hiring, and firing differ between substitutes and probationary teachers.

 Importantly for the Court, probationary teachers must meet far more rigorous certification requirements than do substitutes.  The Court held that the provisions of Article 34 of the Illinois School Code, which applies exclusively to CPS schools and mirrors Article 21, designates substitute teachers as a type of non-tenure track teacher who works full-time at one school like tenure-track teachers, “only with less seniority and without potential job security.”

 Accordingly, the Court held that Harbaugh’s year spent as a full-time substitute teacher did not count toward the four years required to achieve tenure.  Therefore, since she had not achieved tenure, she was not entitled to a hearing before the Board terminated her employment.

 If your district finds itself dealing with a teacher employment issue, we urge you to contact an attorney at the Firm so we can help you reach a favorable resolution.