April 2018 Newsletter – School Districts
Recent Ruling Provides Clarity Regarding March 15 Notices & More
In a recent decision, the California Fourth Appellate Court of Appeal has clarified and expanded on a number of issues regarding the release and reassignment of K-12 administrators. The decision, Hayes v. Temecula Valley Unified School District touched on a variety of concerns, including the nature and procedural requirements involved in “March 15th” notices, adequacy of reasoning for “no cause” reassignments, authority of District officers to place administrators on paid administrative leave, and sufficiency of notice provided by a board agenda. ((March 23 2018) Cal.App. LEXIS 239.)
The uncontested facts of the case show that Hayes served as school principal for over 12 years. At some point, a female teacher at the school complained about a male teacher. As principal, the responsibility for investigating and resolving the complaint fell to Hayes. A later Public Records Act request brought several emails written by Hayes to light, casting doubt on the impartiality and objectivity of the investigation. Based on the imminent disclosure of these emails and resulting loss of confidence in her leadership, the Superintendent ordered a March 15 notice to be issued.
Notice Required Under Education Code § 44951
One of the principle complaints made by the reassigned administrator was that the District failed to adhere to the statutory timelines mandated by Education Code section 44951. Specifically, the statute requires that “written notice” is either sent to the employee via registered mail, or that the employee otherwise signs a notice “that he or she may be released from his or her position for the following year” on or before March 15. Failure to adhere to this date allows the employee to continue to occupy the position for the following year.
In Hayes, the employee received and signed a notice letter on March 11. However, the governing board did not approve the notice until March 17. This, the plaintiff argued, meant that the notice was void as untimely. The Court of Appeal disagreed. In a lengthy discussion of legislative history and prior judicial opinions, the court reasoned that Education Code section 44951 “does not require school board preapproval for a … March 15 notice to be valid.” The court acknowledged that removal and reassignment were subject to statutory notice requirements. However, court held that the statute did not explicitly require school board approval by that date. The purpose of the notice requirement, the court observed, is to alert the employee to a possible change in assignment and allow them sufficient time to seek other employment as an administrator. To that end, the critical question is whether the district provided the employee written notice prior to the statutory date, not whether the board officially acted.
Cause versus No-Cause
Another major argument advanced by Hayes was that the district had released her from her administrator position without cause under Education Code section 44951 in order to avoid due process protections. Hayes argued that the choice of the no-cause procedure was pretextual when actual cause existed. Both the trial court and appeals court disagreed. The court reasoned that, even if the school chose to use the no-cause procedure to avoid a public hearing, there is nothing improper about such an election. Because the employee’s position was “at-will,” there was no requirement that the district establish grounds for proceeding on a for-cause termination. The court further observed that such a reassignment may be based on no more than a personality conflict or a lack of confidence in the employee. The court further held that a school district has the discretion to determine when and whether to pursue disciplinary action, and the discretion to determine the form of their chosen response.
Delegated Authority from Effective Board Policies
After receiving the written notice that her assignment may be changed on March 11, Hayes was placed on paid administrative leave by the Superintendent. Because there was no formal board action, Hayes challenged the authority of the Superintendent’s decision to place her on paid leave. Again, the court sided with the District. First, the court noted that a superintendent functions as the governing board’s “chief executive officer.” (Educ. Code § 35035(e).) The court further found that the governing board had adopted policies that give the Superintendent broad discretionary authority to conduct the internal operations of the district. Based upon this, the court found that this to be sufficient delegation of authority for the superintendent to place an administrator on paid leave pending the outcome of an investigation.
This decision clarifies what had previously generally been assumed to be within the authority of district administrators and provides relatively concrete guidance for school administrators faced with the unenviable task of disciplining or reassigning school leadership.
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