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Court Backs Boards In 'Landmark' Case On Firing Teacher

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By declining to hear a case involving the dismissal of a teacher, the Arizona Supreme Court has rendered what the Arizona School Boards Association (asba) claims is a "landmark" clarification of the authority of school boards over the independent hearing panels that state law requires in all teacher-dismissal cases.

But the Arizona Education Association (aea) says the issue was not whether the opinions of such hearing panels are binding or advisory, but whether there was sufficient cause to fire the teacher in this particular case.

In fact, said Thomas W. Shaffer, director of legal services for the aea, the organization "never took the position that hearing commission findings must be binding. We helped write the law [that created the hearing panels], and we have always known that the findings are only advisory."

However, according to LouElla Kleinz, executive director of the school-boards group, the case makes it clear that the recommendations of such panels are advisory, not binding, and that final authority in teacher-dismissal cases rests with the school board.

"This will affect every district in the state," Ms. Kleinz said. "We estimate that the hearing procedure is used 6 to 10 times per year."

Final Authority

The asba opposes the hearing system and believes that school boards should have final authority in tenure and dismissal decisions.

"If the person to be dismissed wishes to, he will take the decision to court anyway," Ms. Kleinz said. "This is just another delaying step."

But James A. Ullman, the lawyer for the teacher who was fired, contends the issue was and is whether the teacher was guilty of unprofessional conduct under existing evidence, not the ultimate authority of school boards.

Doris Fulton, a tenured teacher with 17 years' experience in the Dysart Unified School District near Phoenix, was dismissed in 1979 for slapping an elementary-school student during a playground incident and for then failing to file the required written report with her principal.

Following the incident, an independent hearing commission recommended that she not be fired, but the board disagreed and dismissed her.

According to Arizona law, no teacher may be dismissed before his or her case is heard by a three-member state panel of examiners established under Arizona's education statutes.

The school board chooses one member, the teacher chooses another, and the two appointed members select the third.

Ms. Fulton originally sued in Superior Court of Maricopa County, charging that she was dismissed for insubordination on insignificant charges.

She was charged with two counts of insubordination for disobeying the district's policy on corporal punishment, which specifies the conditions under which it may be administered, and for failing to submit a written report of the incident in a "timely fashion," according to Mr. Shaffer.

Although the lower court ruled in her favor, saying that the insubordination was an isolated incident that should not be punished with dismissal, the Arizona Court of Appeals overturned its decision.

The appeals court said that the school board does not have to follow the opinion of a hearing panel and said it is not the role of the courts to "second-guess" school boards, Mr. Shaffer said.

Ms. Fulton appealed for a hearing before the Arizona Supreme Court. Two judges wished to hear the case, two did not, and the fifth declined to render an opinion on the question, thus effectively upholding the lower-court decision. The fifth judge gave no reasons for his decision.

Mr. Ullman has asked that the state supreme court appoint a temporary fifth judge to reconsider hearing the case, but the court thus far has not responded to his request.

--ah

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