District Violates IELRA by Non-Renewing a Probationary Teacher’s Contract
The First District Appellate Court recently held that a special education joint agreement district violated the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Act (“Act”) by not renewing a probationary teacher’s contract in retaliation for the teacher’s insistence upon union representation at her post-observation remedial meetings with her school principal. Speed District 802 v. Rachel Warning.
Rachel Warning was a probationary teacher at Speed District 802. The District placed Warning on a corrective action plan, which required her to have periodic remedial meetings with her school principal to discuss and analyze certain materials and evaluate her progress. Warning insisted that she be accompanied by her union representative at these meetings since her employment could be terminated if she did not correct the deficiencies identified in the plan. The principal and the District’s executive director maintained that Warning was not entitled to union representation during her remedial meetings because the meetings related to her performance rather than disciplinary matters, and the collective bargaining agreement only provided for union representation at investigatory meetings that could lead to disciplinary action. The interactions between the union and the executive director on this issue were described as “heated.” Although Warning’s teaching ability had improved, her principal recommended that Warning be terminated, noting that the corrective process became cumbersome and chaotic due to unspecified “choices” that Warning made. Warning and the Union filed an unfair labor practice charge with the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board against the District. The Board determined that the District non-renewed Warning’s contract in retaliation for insisting upon union representation at her remedial meetings, and that in so doing the District violated the Act.
The Appellate Court agreed with the Board’s determination. The Court rejected the District’s argument that Warning’s request for union representation was outside the four corners of the collective bargaining agreement, and found that this request was protected activity under the Act. The Court further affirmed the Board’s determination that this was a motivating factor in the District’s decision not to renew her teaching contract. As evidence of the District’s retaliatory motive, the Court cited the hostility towards union representation expressed by the principal and executive director, the District’s inconsistent positions regarding the reason for not renewing Warning’s teaching contract, and the principal’s statement in a memorandum that Warning’s contract was not renewed due to unidentified “choices” Warning had made.
The Board’s award of reinstatement for Warning resulted in Warning obtaining tenure. This decision is problematic for Districts and serves as a reminder that a teacher’s right to union representation may include situations not specifically addressed in a collective bargaining agreement. Districts should be cautious about their communications with teachers about their performance issues and consult with counsel if there is any question whether union representation is required.