School Boards Beware: Appellate Court Applies High Bar for School Board Ignoring Hearing Officer’s Findings of Fact
The Illinois Appellate Court (Fifth District) recently reversed a school board’s decision to dismiss a tenured teacher for failure to comply with a notice to remedy. This case confirms that while school boards have considerable discretion under Section 24-12 of the School Code to dismiss a teacher, the Appellate Court will not necessarily defer to the board without a close examination of the facts.
In Beggs v. Board of Education of Murphysboro CUSD No. 186, a school board dismissed a tenured teacher for cause under Section 24-12 of the School Code. Lynne Beggs was a high school geometry teacher who began missing a work during the 2011-2012 school year when her mother became ill. The administration held meetings with Beggs, explaining that it could not allow her to miss school and arrive late. Eventually, on February 21, 2012, the Board suspended her without pay and issued a notice to remedy, which required her to improve her performance and punctuality. Between February 22 and March 27, Beggs continued to miss work, show up late, and failed to provide timely lesson plans for substitute teachers. Ultimately, the Board dismissed Beggs for failure to abide by the notice to remedy.
A mutually agreed upon hearing officer reviewed the Board’s decision. After four days of hearing, the hearing officer recommended reinstating the plaintiff to her position. The hearing officer made several critical findings of fact. For example, the hearing officer found that Beggs’s teaching assistant’s testimony that Beggs wasted significant class time when she arrived late was not credible. Further, the hearing officer found that despite the fact that Beggs provided lesson plans late on certain days, the delay had minimal impact on students. Therefore, the hearing officer found that the Board’s case for dismissal was not justified and ordered reinstatement.
Undeterred, the Board supplemented the hearing officer’s findings of fact substantially and rejected his recommendation. For example, the Board supplemented the hearing officer’s findings with testimony from a student who claimed it was obvious when Beggs failed to provide a lesson plan on time, thus contradicting the hearing officer’s finding that the failure had minimal impact on students. The Board also found that Beggs received a reasonable time to remediate her conduct and failed to do so, thereby justifying dismissal. Based on these additional findings, the Board acted to dismiss the teacher in accordance with the authority granted to it by Senate Bill 7.
But in its opinion, the Appellate Court made clear that Senate Bill 7’s revisions do not give school boards a blank check. The court found that although final authority to dismiss now rests with a board of education, the hearing officer’s findings of fact and recommendations may only be modified if they are against the manifest weight of the evidence – meaning that all reasonable and unbiased persons would clearly agree that the hearing officer erred, or in other words, that the reasons for the dismissal are arbitrary, unreasonable and unrelated to the requirements of service.
While acknowledging the standard of review is not clear, the Appellate Court found that a fair interpretation is that the General Assembly intended the hearing officer to be afforded deference, and that the departure from a hearing officer’s recommendation should be “an unusual occurrence that would produce careful scrutiny if brought before a reviewing court.” In light of this standard, the court reversed the Board of Education’s decision and reinstated Beggs with full back pay and benefits.
Lynne Beggs’ case was particularly sympathetic given that she had been a satisfactory teacher until her mother’s health crisis caused her to be late or absent. However, Beggs v. Murphysboro provides a reminder that courts will impose a high bar for any school board amending a hearing officer’s findings of fact and recommendation.
On December 1, 2016, the Illinois Supreme Court rejected the Illinois Appellate Court’s reasoning in this case. The court held that a reviewing court must defer to the school board’s decision, not that of the hearing officer, under Section 24-12 of the School Code. The Court recognized that a school can supplement or modify a hearing officer’s findings of fact if, in the Board’s “opinion,” the hearing officer’s findings were against the manifest weight of the evidence. Despite this favorable interpretation, the Court nonetheless found that the school board improperly dismissed the teacher based on arbitrary and unreasonable findings.