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In a major ruling, the Illinois Supreme Court has restored final decision-making authority to school boards in teacher misconduct dismissal cases. Beggs v. Board of Education of Murphysboro C.U.S.D. No. 186, 2016 IL 120236 (December 1, 2016).  In so ruling the court applied the standard successfully argued by HLERK’s Stanley Eisenhammer in a “friend of the court” brief filed on behalf of the Illinois School Board Association and the Illinois Association of School Administrators. Nonetheless, the Court upheld the decision of the trial and appellate courts requiring reinstatement of the teacher.

In 2011, Senate Bill 7 amended the Illinois tenured teacher dismissal statute, Section 24-12 of the School Code, by increasing a school board’s authority over teacher dismissal cases for misconduct. Before 2011, a school board would preliminarily dismiss a teacher, but the teacher could then appeal the dismissal to an Illinois State Board of Education independent hearing officer, who had binding authority to uphold or overturn the dismissal.

Beginning with the 2011-12 school year, the Legislature shifted final authority from the hearing officer to the school board. While a teacher may still appeal to a hearing officer, the school board now has final authority to accept, revise, or reject the hearing officer’s recommendation. Senate Bill 7 requires a school board to issue a written order incorporating the hearing officer’s findings of fact, except a school board may modify or supplement the findings of fact if, “in its opinion,” they are “against the manifest weight of the evidence.” A school board’s decision is final unless reviewed in circuit court.

Senate Bill 7 also provides a standard courts must use when reviewing teacher dismissals for cause. If the school board’s decision is against the hearing officer’s recommendation, Senate Bill 7 requires the court to “give consideration to the school board’s decision and its supplemental findings of fact, if applicable, and the hearing officer’s findings of fact and recommendation in making its decision.” The issue raised in Beggs was whether this language requires a reviewing court to give deference to the findings of the school board or the hearing officer when reviewing teacher dismissals.

The first reported case under Senate Bill 7’s new causal dismissal process involved Lynne Beggs, a 19-year veteran teacher at Murphysboro Community Unit School District No. 186. Beggs had a history of proficient or better evaluations. Her father passed away during the preceding summer, and her mother’s health began to deteriorate significantly during the 2011-12 school year. These personal issues caused Beggs to miss many work days that year, exhausting her accumulated sick leave, and to arrive late and unprepared for her first-period class.

After the district issued a “letter of concern” and a temporary unpaid suspension, the school board approved a notice of remedial warning on February 22, 2012. Beggs was directed to report to work on time, be prepared to teach “bell-to-bell,” and have lesson plans available for any days she would be absent. Following her suspension, the school board determined Beggs violated the warning notice in three respects over a four-day period: (1) she did not report for work on time on March 20, 2012; (2) she did not have lesson plans prepared on March 21 and 22, 2012; and (3) she was not prepared to teach and did not start teaching at the start of the school day on March 19, 2012. Based on these three findings of fact, the school board determined Beggs had violated the directives in her notice of remedial warning and dismissed her. Incidentally, her mother passed away shortly thereafter.

Beggs appealed to an ISBE hearing officer, who concluded the perceived violations either did not occur or were not “the type of serious breach of [the notice of remedial warning]” that supported her dismissal and recommended that she be reinstated. Murphysboro Board of Education overrode the hearing officer’s recommendation pursuant to its authority in Section 24-12. Beggs appealed to the circuit court, which agreed with the hearing officer and overturned her dismissal. The school board then appealed to the Illinois Appellate Court.

The Illinois Appellate Court upheld the circuit court’s decision, significantly eroding what was thought to be school boards’ increased authority over teacher dismissal hearings for misconduct. It acknowledged that school boards now have final decision-making authority under Senate Bill 7. Nevertheless, the court determined that by prohibiting a school board from departing from a hearing officer’s findings unless it determines the findings are “against the manifest weight of the evidence,” the Legislature intended a certain level of deference to remain with the hearing officer. Accordingly, the court would only uphold the school board’s final decision if “all reasonable and unbiased persons clearly agree that the hearing officer erred, and that the evidence presented at the hearing begs the opposite conclusion.”

On December 1, 2016, the Illinois Supreme Court expressly rejected the appellate court’s analysis and held a court must defer to the decision of the school board—not the hearing officer—on appeal. The court noted that although Section 24-12 requires a school board to incorporate the hearing officer’s findings of fact, it also allows the school board to supplement or modify those findings if, “in its opinion,” it believes they are against the manifest weight of the evidence. The court held this “in its opinion” language clearly indicated the Legislature’s intent to vest school boards with the discretion to depart from hearing officers’ findings. The court then went on to determine: (1) whether the school board’s findings of fact were against the manifest weight of the evidence; and (2) whether those findings of fact provide a sufficient basis for the school board’s conclusion that cause for dismissal existed.

The Illinois Supreme Court held that two out of three of the school board’s findings of fact supporting Beggs’ dismissal were against the manifest weight of the evidence. First, the superintendent had excused Beggs’ late arrival on March 20, 2012. Second, it was undisputed that Beggs had delivered her lesson plans by the start of the school day on March 21 and 22, 2012. The court also noted that the only remaining finding, that Beggs did not start teaching at the start of the school day on March 19, 2012, seemed understandable given her long absence from the classroom. Because it was unclear whether the school board would have dismissed Beggs based on the March 19, 2012 incident alone, the court held the school board’s decision to dismiss Beggs was arbitrary and unreasonable.

While the Illinois Supreme Court ultimately overturned the teacher’s dismissal, the court’s analysis is of major importance for school boards moving forward. This case still reinforces the need to carefully consider the facts and the entire context of a teacher’s situation before moving to dismiss. But once a school board has made a final decision, a reviewing court must defer to the findings of the school board, not the hearing officer, when determining whether the teacher’s dismissal should be upheld.

Contact Stan Eisenhammer or Ellen Rothenberg with your teacher dismissal inquires.