by Maureen Anichini Lemon (Spring 2016)

In Beggs v. Murphysboro CUSD No. 186, 2015 IL App (5th) 150018, the Fifth District Appellate Court of Illinois recently overturned a school board’s decision to dismiss a tenured teacher for failing to comply with the directives of a notice to remedy. Lynne Beggs had been a satisfactory teacher in the Murphysboro school district since 1993. In 2011, Beggs’ father died and her mother’s health began to deteriorate. Beggs’ absences increased as she assisted with her mother’s care. After exhausting her available sick leave, Beggs began to arrive late to school and was unprepared for her first hour geometry class. The administration issued a ‘letter of concern’ to Beggs in January 2012, after multiple meetings addressing its concerns. When Beggs arrived late on February 10, 2012, she was suspended without pay from February 10 through February 21, 2012, and issued a notice of remedial warning. The notice to remedy explicitly directed Beggs to (1) timely report to work by 8:15 a.m., (2) be prepared and begin to teach at 8:30 a.m., and (3) have lesson plans available on days when she was absent. The notice informed Beggs that she would be dismissed for any future violations of these directives.

Beggs returned to work for 2 days before requesting and receive a leave of absence from February 27 through March 14, 2012. Beggs was present at work on March 19 and 20, 2012, before taking additional sick leave. The Administration suspended Beggs until her dismissal by the Board of Education on April 30, 2012. The reasons for Beggs’ suspension and dismissal were (1) her lack of preparation to teach during first hour on March 19, (2) her inability to arrive at school by 8:15 a.m. on March 20, and (3) her failure to provide lesson plans to the substitute teacher before the first class began on March 21 and March 22.

Beggs requested a hearing before an impartial hearing officer. At the hearing, Beggs admitted that she understood the directives and expectations contained in the February 2012 notice to remedy. After a four day hearing, Hearing Officer Jules Crystal issued a recommendation to reinstate Beggs. Crystal discredited the testimony of the geometry classroom aide who had reported to the administration that Beggs did not begin to teach for 15 – 20 minutes on the morning of March 19. Because the aide was not a teacher, Crystal opined that the district should not have relied on her assessment of what happened on that morning. While acknowledging that Beggs did not arrive by 8:15 a.m. on March 20, Crystal dismissed this violation of the notice to remedy because it was the first occurrence of its kind since Beggs received her notice to remedy. As for the lesson plans on March 21 and 22, Crystal found that although they didn’t arrive before the start of the 8:30 a.m. geometry class start, they arrived ‘within minutes’ of the start of class. Crystal concluded that Beggs’ failure to submit lesson plans before the start of class ‘minimally’ impacted students. Overall, Crystal criticized the district for not providing Beggs with a ‘reasonable opportunity’ to correct the job performance deficiencies, suggesting that the district should have effected a ‘last-chance understanding’ with her until the end of the school year.

After Senate Bill 7’s enactment in 2011, the final decision-making authority to dismiss a tenured teacher has shifted from an independent hearing officer to the school board. A school board may modify or supplement the findings of fact by the hearing officer, but may reject the hearing officer’s recommendations only if the school board determined that the recommendations were against the manifest weight of the evidence. Here, the Murphysboro school board considered Hearing Officer Crystal’s recommendations, but supplemented them with additional facts to support its conclusion that Beggs did not timely report to work, provided inadequate lesson plans, and was insubordinate. The school board believes that it accommodated Beggs during her leave of absence, but issued directives and expectations that she was expected to fully and immediately comply with upon her return to work. For these reasons, the school board entered a decision to dismiss Beggs on July 30, 2013 notwithstanding Crystal’s recommendation to reinstate Beggs. Beggs filed a complaint in administrative review on September 3, 2013.

The trial court and the appellate court each ruled in Beggs’ favor. Even though school boards now have the final decision making authority in teacher dismissals, school boards must give a certain level of deference to the hearing officer. Only if all reasonable and unbiased persons clearly agree that the hearing officer erred, and that the evidence presented at the hearing requires the opposite conclusion, can a school board reject a hearing officer’s decision. Additionally, the court was unconvinced that Beggs’ conduct was detrimental to students. The court concluded that Beggs’ dismissal was ‘arbitrary, unreasonable, and unrelated to service, because no logical nexus exists between [Beggs’] fitness to perform as a teacher and the misconduct in question which led to her dismissal.’

In the end, the hearing officer and, subsequently, the courts rejected the school board’s expectation that Beggs immediately and fully comply with the notice to remedy. They were sympathetic to the fact that Beggs’ work product suffered during an emotionally difficult period in her life. The court recommended that school districts and their employees provide a remediation period after such critical events, have concluded.

After Senate Bill 7’s enactment in 2011, the final decision-making authority to dismiss a tenured teacher has shifted from an independent hearing officer to the school board. A school board may modify or supplement the findings of fact by the hearing officer, but may reject the hearing officer’s recommendations only if the school board determined that the recommendations were against the manifest weight of the evidence. Here, the Murphysboro school board considered Hearing Officer Crystal’s recommendations, but supplemented them with additional facts to support its conclusion that Beggs did not timely report to work, provided inadequate lesson plans, and was insubordinate. The school board believes that it accommodated Beggs during her leave of absence, but issued directives and expectations that she was expected to fully and immediately comply with upon her return to work. For these reasons, the school board entered a decision to dismiss Beggs on July 30, 2013 notwithstanding Crystal’s recommendation to reinstate Beggs. Beggs filed a complaint in administrative review on September 3, 2013.

The trial court and the appellate court each ruled in Beggs’ favor. Even though school boards now have the final decision making authority in teacher dismissals, school boards must give a certain level of deference to the hearing officer. Only if all reasonable and unbiased persons clearly agree that the hearing officer erred, and that the evidence presented at the hearing requires the opposite conclusion, can a school board reject a hearing officer’s decision. The appellate court rejected the hearsay nature of the additional evidence considered by the school board. Additionally, the court was unconvinced that Beggs’ conduct was detrimental to students. The court concluded that Beggs’ dismissal was ‘arbitrary, unreasonable, and unrelated to service, because no logical nexus exists between [Beggs’] fitness to perform as a teacher and the misconduct in question which led to her dismissal.’

In the end, the hearing officer and, subsequently, the court rejected the school board’s expectation that Beggs immediately and fully comply with the notice to remedy. They were sympathetic to the fact that Beggs’ work product suffered during an emotionally difficult period in her life. The court recommended that school districts and their employees provide a remediation period after such critical events, such as a parent’s illness and death, have concluded.