By: Brittany Flaherty Theis

Tenured teachers in Illinois generally face dismissal for one of three reasons: (i) reductions-in-force, or “RIFs”; (ii) poor evaluation ratings; or (iii) dismissal for cause resulting from misconduct. In 2011, the Illinois legislature changed the School Code through two key pieces of legislation, the “Public Education Reform Act” or “PERA,” and “Senate Bill 7.” While all three manners of dismissal were affected, the Illinois Supreme Court heard oral arguments today in a case that revolves around dismissals for cause.

The teacher, Lynne Beggs, was dismissed in April 2012 by her former employer, Murphysboro Community Unit School District No. 186, for problems with tardiness and unpreparedness. Ms. Beggs exercised her statutory right to request a hearing, which both parties participated in. Afterward, the hearing officer made findings of fact and issued a recommendation that she be reinstated to her position, suggesting that a second “final warning” would be appropriate. Despite that recommendation, the Murphysboro Board of Education voted to uphold its prior dismissal in July 2013.

Before PERA and Senate Bill 7, the School Code provided that a hearing officer’s decision in a case like this was final in all Illinois school districts except Chicago Public Schools. In Chicago, as of 2011, the hearing officer only made non-binding findings of fact and recommendations which were subject to a final decision by the board of education. The changes brought by Senate Bill 7 made the procedures for dismissals in downstate school districts much more similar to the procedures followed by Chicago Public Schools. Hearing officers in downstate teacher dismissal cases now issue non-binding findings of fact and recommendations which are submitted to the local board of education for review and final action.

Ms. Beggs sought administrative review of her dismissal in the Jackson County Circuit Court. In December 2014 and January 2015, the circuit court entered orders reversing her dismissal, reinstating her to employment, and ordering Murphysboro to pay her lost wages and benefits. The Board of Education appealed to the Fifth District of the Appellate Court of Illinois. On December 3, 2015, the Fifth District issued an order affirming the circuit court’s decision to reinstate Ms. Beggs. It was the first appellate court decision published in Illinois to interpret the new statutory language and procedure for dismissals for cause.

The Fifth District acknowledged the substantial changes in the law and noted that downstate dismissals now resembled those in Chicago, but ultimately held that it was “unclear what weight the legislature intended a reviewing court to give a downstate hearing officer’s recommendation.” As a result, the Fifth District agreed with the Jackson County Circuit Court’s decision to grant some level of deference to the hearing officer’s findings and recommendation.

From the perspective of a school district, however, the statutory language is quite clear. The board has 45 days to issue a written order stating whether the teacher will be reinstated or the dismissal upheld. The School Code now states that the board’s written order shall incorporate the hearing officer’s findings of fact – but the board may modify or supplement the findings of fact if, in the board’s opinion, the findings of fact are against the manifest weight of the evidence. The School Code states only that the courts upon review “shall give consideration to the school board’s decision and its supplemental findings of fact, if applicable, and the hearing officer’s findings of fact and recommendation,” and makes no mention of giving deference to the hearing officer.

The Murphysboro Board of Education consequently sought leave to appeal to the Illinois Supreme Court. The Court granted leave earlier this year and the parties filed their briefs this summer. In addition, the Illinois Association of School Boards and Illinois Association of School Administrators jointly filed an amicus curiae brief, and Ms. Beggs and the Illinois Federation of Teachers both filed briefs in reply. Teachers in Murphysboro are represented by an affiliate of the Illinois Education Association.

Today, the Court heard oral arguments from the attorneys for Ms. Beggs and the Murphysboro Board of Education. The justices’ questions centered largely on the new statutory language, with particular focus on how reviewing courts were supposed to “give consideration to” the findings of both a hearing officer and a board of education. Although both parties discussed the facts surrounding Ms. Beggs’ dismissal, the justices had relatively few factual questions. The justices seemed to agree, and Ms. Beggs’ attorneys did not dispute, that the local board of education is the final decision-making body and has the power to modify or supplement the hearing officer’s findings. It appears that the ultimate issue the Court will address is whether the School Code, revised through PERA and Senate Bill 7, requires courts to give deference to the findings of a hearing officer that were rejected, modified, and supplemented by the local board of education.

The attorneys at Whitt Law are watching this area of law as it rapidly evolves and we currently have a tenured teacher dismissal case pending on appeal. We advise school districts to address potential teacher dismissals on a case-by-case basis and are available to advise school districts of their options based on the status of the law at that time. Please contact Whitt Law Attorney Brian R. Bare if you have questions about Beggs v. Board of Education of Murphysboro Community Unit School District No. 186 described above or need advice regarding employment decisions within your school district.

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