Recent Case Addresses Board of Education Dismissal of Tenured Teacher Over Hearing Officer Finding of No Cause
In a recent decision, the Appellate Court of Illinois rejected a school board’s decision to terminate a tenured teacher for misconduct despite a hearing officer’s finding that there was insufficient evidence of cause for dismissal. Although Illinois law allows school boards the option to reach a different decision than the hearing officer in a tenured teacher dismissal proceeding, the case is a warning to school boards that they must make findings supporting dismissal when the hearing officer decision does not already do so. The finding should include adequate explanations of reasoning and explicit support for credibility determinations. The case also highlights that a teacher may be able to avoid dismissal by claiming that his failure to answer questions forthrightly during the investigation of the incident was the result of a lack of notice and adequate representation during the meeting.
In Burgess v. Illinois State Board of Education, a tenured teacher, Burgess, was dismissed after receiving a notice to remedy for inappropriate and unprofessional conduct in communications with members of the school community on matters relating to the school district. The notice to remedy contained a number of directives related to professionalism and informed Burgess that a violation of any of the directives would result in dismissal.
Approximately five years later, Burgess was alleged to have made a number of inappropriate comments during two union meetings. The teacher’s and school district’s witnesses provided contrary testimony as to whether Burgess actually made the most serious comments. The school board was clear that it believed its witnesses over Burgess’s in finding that Burgess made the most serious comments and disagreeing with the hearing officer’s recommendation. According to the court, however, the board failed to adequately explain and make findings supporting that credibility determination.
Burgess also was alleged to have been insubordinate by failing to answer questions forthrightly during a meeting with the superintendent and the board’s attorney. According to the Court, however, Burgess’s reluctance to answer the questions was “understandable and was not indicative of immorality or an absolute willful or intentional intent to disregard a rule” where the meeting was sprung on Burges and he was asked questions about matters that were not part of the formal complaint that led to the investigation.
This case in no way limits the rights of a school board to disagree with a hearing officer’s recommendation following a tenured teacher dismissal hearing. It does serve as a reminder of the importance of school boards providing an adequate explanation of the reasoning in their final decision. Insubordination also remains an important and powerful basis for establishing cause, but care should be taken to provide adequate notice and opportunity for representation at any meetings to prevent the defense raised in this case. For more information on this or any other school personnel issues, contact the authors of this article or any other Franczek attorney.