by Meganne Trela (Winter 2017)

The deference given to the hearing officer’s findings of fact and recommendations in the post-Senate Bill 7 world was brought before the Illinois Supreme Court in Beggs v. Board of Education of Murphysboro Community Unit School District No. 186, 2016 IL 120236.  Prior to Senate Bill 7, an independent hearing officer had the binding authority to dismiss a teacher for cause. However, Senate Bill 7 amended that authority to provide that, while a hearing officer issues a report to the school board with findings of fact and recommendations, the school board issues a written order regarding whether the teacher must be dismissed. The written order is required to incorporate the hearing officer’s findings of fact “except the school board may modify or supplement the findings of fact if, in its opinion, the findings of fact are against the manifest weight of the evidence.” (105 ILCS 5/24-12(d)(8))

When the Murphysboro School Board dismissed tenured teacher, Lynne Beggs, despite the hearing officer’s findings of fact and recommendation to the contrary, Beggs appealed the decision in court. After nearly 18 years of teaching with a satisfactory record in the district, Beggs began utilizing an increased amount of sick leave to care for her mother.

Eventually, Beggs began arriving late for school and was unprepared for her first hour geometry class. After several letters, meetings of concern, and a suspension without pay, the employer school board issued a notice to remedy. The February 21, 2012, notice to remedy required that she (1) report to work by 8:15 a.m. as required by contract; (2) be prepared and began to teach at 8:30 a.m.; and (3) have lesson plans available on days she was absent.

Shortly thereafter, Beggs went on a leave of absence until March 14, 2012. Beggs returned from her leave on March 19th. Soon after her return, the school board adopted a resolution to dismiss and authorize a notice of dismissal because she (1) was not prepared to teach during her first hour class on March 19th; (2) failed to arrive to school on time on March 20th; and (3) failed to provide lesson plans to the substitute teacher before the first class began on March 21st and March 22nd.

Beggs requested an impartial hearing. After a four-day hearing, the hearing officer issued a 67-page written recommendation, concluding that the school board failed to establish that the teacher violated the notice of remedial warning or engaged in irremediable conduct warranting dismissal. The hearing officer recommended that she be reinstated to her position with seniority, pay and benefits fully restored.

The school board reviewed the findings and recommendations of the hearing officer as required under law. However, the school board supplemented the hearing officer’s findings of fact and decided to dismiss the teacher despite the hearing officer’s recommendation. Beggs sought review of the decision in the trial court, and the trial court ordered her reinstatement, giving considerable deference to the hearing officer’s findings of fact and recommendations.

At the appellate court level, the findings of the hearing officer were also given significant deference. The appellate court determined that only if all reasonable and unbiased persons clearly agree that the hearing officer erred and that the evidence presented at hearing requires the opposite conclusion, could the school board reject the hearing officer’s recommendation. The appellate court also ruled in favor Beggs, ultimately concluding that her dismissal was “arbitrary, unreasonable, and unrelated to service.”

The Illinois Supreme Court reviewed the appellate court decision and clarified the school board’s role. The court determined that it was the decision of the school board that was the final decision for purposes of administrative review. The court dismissed the plaintiff’s argument that the partisan nature of the school board and impartial nature of the hearing officer requires the court to grant greater deference to the hearing officer’s determinations. The court opined that school board members are thought to be “capable of judging a particular controversy fairly on the basis of its own circumstances.”

According to the court, reviewing courts should apply the clearly erroneous standard when reviewing a school board’s discharge of a tenured teacher.  The school board’s decision to discharge is subject to reversal if it is “arbitrary, unreasonable, or unrelated to the requirements of service.” The court is asked to decide “whether we are ‘left with the definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been committed” when applying the facts to the applicable legal standard.

Despite finding in favor of the school district on the applicable standard of review and the weight given to the hearing officer’s report, the court determined that the school board’s findings of fact in the matter were against the manifest weight of the evidence. The court noted several deficiencies in the notice to remedy, including that the notice to remedy only addressed Beggs’ late arrivals and lack of lesson plans for absences. Therefore, the school board’s reliance on the teacher’s use (or ineffective use) of time while in the classroom was concerning. Additionally, only one of the original three violations of the notice to remedy was supported by the manifest weight of the evidence – that Beggs was not prepared to teach her first hour class on March 19th. That violation was understandable considering her long absence from the classroom. Because there was no evidence that the school board would have dismissed Beggs based solely on that one minor violation, the court found the school board’s decision to discharge the teacher was arbitrary, unreasonable, and unrelated to the requirements of service.

While school boards maintain the final decision making authority in tenured teacher dismissals for cause for purposes of administrative review, any findings of fact adopted by the board must be supported by the manifest weight of the evidence. The findings adopted by the school board must also be tailored to     the deficiencies contained within the notice to remedy. In addition, the school board’s determination based on those findings must not be arbitrary, unreasonable, and unrelated to the requirements of service.