School  Board Authority to Terminate Employment of Tenured Teacher Limited in First Appellate Court Decision Under SB7

In a major ruling, the Illinois Appellate Court has reinstated a tenured teacher who a board of education had dismissed due to misconduct notwithstanding an ISBE hearing officer’s recommendation to the contrary.

In 2011, SB7 amended the Illinois tenured teacher dismissal statute by changing who had the ultimate authority to dismiss a tenured teacher for misconduct (as opposed to for performance) under Section 24-12 of the School Code. Prior to 2011, a board of education would preliminarily dismiss a teacher, but an Illinois State Board of Education independent hearing officer had binding authority to dismiss the teacher. Beginning with the 2011—2012 school year, however, the Legislature shifted final authority from the hearing officer to the board of education in misconduct cases.

On December 3, 2015, the Illinois Appellate Court significantly eroded what was thought to be school boards’ increased authority. In the first reported case under the new SB7 causal dismissal process, Beggs v. Board of Education of Murphysboro C.U.S.D. No. 186, a hearing officer recommended a tenured teacher’s reinstatement, and the Murphysboro Board of Education overrode the hearing officer’s recommendation, pursuant to its authority under Section 24-12. The teacher appealed the board’s decision in court, and both the trial court and the appellate court ordered her reinstatement.

In the 2011—2012 school year (the first year under SB7), Ms. Beggs was a 19-year veteran teacher with 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—2012 school year. This caused Beggs to miss a considerable number of days of work that year, exhausting her accumulated sick leave, and arrive late and unprepared for her first-period class.

After the district issued a “letter of concern” and a temporary unpaid suspension, the board approved a notice of remedial warning. Beggs was directed to report to work on time, to be prepared to teach “bell-to-bell,” and to have lesson plans available for any days when she would be absent. Following her suspension, Beggs returned to work for two days and then requested and received a leave of absence. She returned from that leave for two more days and then was absent again for four days, prompting the board to proceed with her dismissal. Incidentally, her mother passed away shortly after she was dismissed.

The teacher appealed to an ISBE hearing officer, and the hearing officer heard evidence regarding three alleged violations of Beggs’s notice of remedial warning. All three related to being late to work, being unprepared to teach her first-period class, and not having lesson plans available for her substitute. The hearing officer concluded that the perceived violations either did not occur or were not “the type of serious breach of [the notice of remedial warning]” that supported or could form the basis of her dismissal, and he recommended that the teacher be reinstated. The hearing officer specifically considered conflicting testimony and credibility, but he also factored in Beggs’s positive work history, the effect of her parents’ poor health on her, the short remediation period, and the fact that the remediation period began during—rather than after—her personal crisis.

In determining its proper standard of review, the court acknowledged that school boards have now been granted the final decision-making authority under Section 24-12. Nevertheless, the court determined that by prohibiting a school board from departing from a hearing officer’s findings unless it determines the findings to be 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.”

This ruling will make it harder for school boards to overrule the findings of an ISBE hearing officer in dismissals involving tenured teacher misconduct. It also reinforces the need to carefully consider the facts and the entire context of a teacher’s situation before moving to dismiss. We will provide an update if the district appeals this case. 

Tenured teacher dismissals are complex litigation matters requiring highly specialized and experienced legal expertise. For questions regarding the impact of this case on your district, contact Tina Christofalos or Chris Hoffmann.

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