In a case defended by Lusk & Albertson, the State Tenure Commission (“STC”) recently affirmed an administrative law judge’s (“ALJ”) determination that the decision of the River Rouge Schools to discharge a teacher for professional misconduct was not arbitrary or capricious. The case applied and further developed case law on the discharge standard within the Teachers’ Tenure Act (“TTA”), which was amended in July of 2011.
In Halliburton v River Rouge School District, the District sought to discharge a tenured teacher for three charges of misconduct. Specifically, the District claimed that the teacher had used racial epithets directed at his students, had disparaged his students abilities either to them or to others in the presence of his students, and had made inappropriate statements (including sexual innuendo) to a volunteer working with the School District. The STC upheld the holding of the ALJ that the School District had established the first two claims and that given such, discharge was not arbitrary or capricious.
In rendering its decision in this matter, the STC relied on the “not arbitrary or capricious” standard that it created in the earlier case of Cona v. Avondale School District (previously discussed on this blog), but also made other rulings. Specifically, the STC confirmed that the level of due process owed to a teacher against whom tenure charges has been brought has not changed under the revised TTA. A teacher must be given a copy of the charges and an opportunity to address the board, in person or in writing, before the board votes to proceed on the charges. No other process is due prior to a vote of the board. The STC also applied the same case law that existed prior to the TTA amendments of 2011 in discussing the standard for double jeopardy (punishing a teacher twice for the same offense).
The most instructive portion of the Halliburton decision relates to the issue of whether a teacher’s past contributions to a school district can be used to mitigate the level of punishment under the not arbitrary or capricious standard. In reference to such, the STC states:
[The teacher] argues that these contributions [to the school community] weigh against discharge. Appellee [School District] argues that evidence of a teacher’s contributions to the school community is not relevant now that the “not arbitrary or capricious” standard of review has replaced the “reasonable and just cause” standard. MCL 38.101. The determination of the appropriate level of discipline for charges that are proved by a preponderance of the evidence has long involved the consideration of many factors, including the teacher’s contributions to the school community. See, e.g., Zangkas v Birmingham Public Schools Board of Education (06-3). We disagree with appellee’s blanket assertion that a teacher’s contributions are irrelevant to the determination of whether a controlling board’s decision to discipline a tenured teacher is based on a reason that is arbitrary or capricious. Nonetheless, based on all relevant factors, we find that evidence of appellant’s contributions to the school community does not outweigh or mitigate the adverse effect and seriousness of his proven misconduct.
Thus, while the STC held that the past contributions of the teacher in this matter did not weigh in favor of mitigating discharge because of the severity of the conduct, it did not rule out the chance that such could be used in the future.
The Halliburton decision is now the second teacher misconduct discharge opinion from the STC. While the opinion adds some clarity to the interpretation of the of the STC regarding the 2011 amendments to the TTA, there is still much to be determined. L&A will be sure to keep you up to date when such occurs.
The School District was represented in this matter by Bob Schindler.