Jones v. Kent City School Dist. Bd. of Edn., 2023-Ohio-265
The Eleventh District Court of Appeals of Ohio (Ashtabula, Geauga, Lake, Portage, and Trumbull) reversed a trial court’s decision affirming a board of education’s decision to nonrenew a teacher. During the 2019-20 school year, the teacher had several instances of misconduct that resulted in a three-day suspension. Later that same school year, the teacher failed to report to work and did not follow the proper protocols for entering an absence, resulting in students being unsupervised. The teacher was told he would be placed on a full evaluation cycle and was likely to be non-renewed.
An in-person observation was conducted in January, and a second took place while observing a distance learning class on May 1. On May 15, an observation of a Google Meet session was conducted where the students “shar[ed] progress on their Google Sheets assignment.” The teacher was not present during this session, as he was on medical leave, and the evaluation consisted of observing the students working on a project the teacher designed. The teacher was invited to but did not attend a post-conference meeting on May 28.
The Board then took action to nonrenew the teacher’s contract, as recommended by the Superintendent. The teacher was advised of this decision, asked for the reasons for nonrenewal, and was informed it related to those days he left early, failure to fulfill duties on an early release day and teacher work day, and his absence which left students unattended.
In April 2020, a Memorandum of Understanding was entered into by the Board and the teachers’ union, which specified the process to complete teacher evaluations for 2019-20 in accordance with House Bill 197. It provided that for those teachers subject to an evaluation under the CBA, if all required observations were completed by March 16, 2020, the evaluator shall complete the evaluation report by May 22, 2020, and if the required observations were not completed by that date, they would be conducted virtually. It provided that, based upon completion of such procedures, “all teachers subject to evaluation for the 2019-20 school year shall be deemed to have evaluations complied with for purposes of R.C. 3319.11.”
The court of appeals noted the standard on appeals in cases concerning nonrenewals. Under the applicable statute, the court does not have the jurisdiction to consider the merits of the decision of the Board concerning the reasons for nonrenewal. The Court may overturn such a decision only if there are procedural defects, i.e., failure to provide the required evaluations.
The court of appeals also addressed the jurisdictional argument of the Board, which was that only SERB had jurisdiction over the dispute because the dispute arose from an MOU that is part of the collective bargaining agreement. The court noted that while there can be cases in which even statutory rights may be subject to interpretation through an applicable CBA, which in turn could divest a court of jurisdiction, the statute applicable here may not be superseded by the CBA. Therefore, since determination of the evaluation procedures is statutory, and the application of the law is not dependent upon a collective bargaining agreement, the lower court had jurisdiction to hear this matter.
Having resolved the jurisdictional issues, the court turned to the merits of the teacher’s challenge, which, in essence, was that the third observation did not comply with the statutory requirements because the teacher was not present and the observation consisted of watching students work virtually on a project designed by the teacher. On this, the court agreed, holding that the statutes applicable to nonrenewal must be liberally construed in favor of teachers and that strict compliance, not substantial compliance is required with regard to nonrenewal procedures. The teacher was not present at all during the third evaluation and, even though it was due to his own illness, there was no pre or post-observation conference. These were determined to be fatal procedural defects. The Ohio Supreme Court has previously held that a teacher’s medical leave of absence does not excuse a school board from complying with required nonrenewal procedures.
What does this mean for your district?
Procedural defects are essentially the only pathway a teacher has to overturn the decision of a board to nonrenew. Complying with those procedures is crucial. It would be wise to have a game plan in place for any teacher being considered for nonrenewal. A checklist is also a good tool to make sure you are meeting procedural requirements in the lead-up to the Board’s action to nonrenew the contract. Finally, consider addressing how absences will be handled in the context of evaluations and nonrenewal in your collective bargaining agreements.
Ryan M. LaFlamme is shareholder at Ennis Britton Co., L.P.A., and OASBO Gold Sponsor.
Reprinted from the Ennis Britton School Law Review, February 2023 Edition