The Illinois Supreme Court has concluded that the Chicago Board of Education (“Board”) has the power to decide to suspend and reduce the back pay of a tenured teacher, once termination proceedings have been initiated but the hearing officer finds the charges do not support termination. The Court determined that the power to suspend and the power to terminate are independent powers and that after the extensive, careful proceedings involved in a termination hearing, the Chicago Board of Education retains the authority to consider and implement a lesser penalty such as suspension, in lieu of termination.
For a full copy of the Supreme Court decision in Board Of Education of the City Of Chicago et al., v. Moore, 2021 IL 125785 (January 22, 2021) click link below:
A more detailed summary of the Court decision is provided herein.
SUMMARY OF DECISION
BOARD OF EDUCATION OF THE CITY OF CHICAGO et al., v. MOORE
2021 IL 125785 (1/22/21)
A tenured teacher in the Chicago Public Schools (“CPS”) was told by students that another student had taken some pills, but allegedly failed to take appropriate steps to check on the well-being of the student. The principal learned of the matter and called for an ambulance. During the investigation of the incident, the same teacher made a false statement about the incident. The teacher claimed the statement was a mistake. In April 2017, the CPS Board of Education (“Board”) suspended the teacher without pay, pending her termination hearing and decision. The charges against the teacher alleged she failed to appropriately respond to a student’s apparent overdose of medication, failed to supervise, failed to perform certain duties, and failed to comply with the Board’s policies and the State’s ethical and professional teaching standards.
Following a hearing on the charges, the hearing officer found that the teacher did alert the school administration to the student’s overdose and that she did not lie during the investigation of the incident. He ordered the teacher to be reinstated to her teaching position with full backpay.
CPS accepted the hearing officer determination that the evidence did not support termination and reinstated the teacher but the Board concluded that the teacher had still failed to meet important, basic requirements for a teacher that warranted disciplinary action, even if not as severe as termination. In departing from the hearing officer’s recommendations in part and imposing a remedial sanction, the Board relied upon the facts established from its investigation and the termination hearing. Specifically, the Board found that the teacher failed to act in a “prudent and reasonable manner” and determined that the teacher failed to check on the well-being of the student after learning that she had just ingested an unknown quantity of pills. The Board additionally found that the teacher failed to timely notify anyone when the student was in distress in her classroom, which placed the student’s health and safety at risk. The Board ultimately concluded determined the teacher’s conduct was below the level expected from a reasonably prudent educator.
The Board then went on to determine that although the misconduct did not support dismissal, it was still negligent behavior and warranted a 90-day suspension (time served pending the hearing) without pay. The Board acted to issue a warning resolution against the teacher, requiring her to attend training on emergency responsiveness and suicide prevention, and suspension. Since the teacher had been suspended up to and during the hearing without pay, the Board considered the 90 day unpaid suspension to have already been served and the teacher was paid for the remainder of the time that she had been suspended pending her hearing.
The Illinois Supreme Court concluded that an “all or nothing” procedure for terminations that precluded any other discipline if a termination hearing did not succeed could lead to unjust decisions and that an “individualized response,” such as the suspension meted out by the Board here was well within the Board’s power.
In reaching its conclusions, the Supreme Court read the varying provisions of the School Code as a whole. While the School Code does provide that a tenured teacher who is not dismissed must be made whole for lost earnings, less setoffs for mitigation, [105 ILCS 5/34-85], that provision must be read together with the general intent and purpose of the School Code providing the school board “… shall exercise general supervision and jurisdiction over the public education and the public school system of the city, and, except as otherwise provided by this Article, shall have power: * * * The specifications of the powers herein granted are not to be construed as exclusive but the board shall also exercise all other powers that they may be requisite or proper for the maintenance and the development of a public school system, not inconsistent with the other provisions of this Article or provisions of the Code which apply to all school districts.” 105 ILCS 5/34-18. In that regard, the Supreme Court determined that the provisions related to termination and reinstatement, do not correspondingly eliminate the Board’s implied authority to suspend a tenured teacher at the end of the dismissal proceeding.
The Supreme Court relied on its earlier decision recognizing the authority of school boards to suspend teachers, noting that “a school board has only those powers expressly conferred upon it by the General Assembly and those that are necessary to carry into effect the powers granted by the legislature.” Spinelli v. Immanuel Lutheran Evangelical Congregation, Inc., 118 Ill. 2d 389, 403 (1987). In Spinelli, the Court found school boards are charged by the School Code with the duty “[t]o adopt and enforce all necessary rules for the management and government of the public schools of their district” and that those implied powers included the power to temporarily suspend teachers. Id. at 404-05. The Court reasoned that the provisions of the School Code relied on in this matter have been repeatedly amended since the Court’s decision in Spinelli, and that if the legislature had intended to limit the implied authority of a school board to suspend, it would have done so. Therefore, based on Spinelli, the Board’s implied suspension powers under Section 34- 18 of the School Code are not limited or restricted when dismissal proceedings are commenced under the parallel, but separate Section 34-85 provision.
The Supreme Court found the “individualized response” of the Chicago Board of Education that this teacher’s conduct was remedial, warranting suspension but not dismissal, was well within the scope of the Board’s implied powers under Section 34-18 of the School Code and Spinelli. The Court concluded that Spinelli supports the Board’s authority to issue a 90- day disciplinary suspension without pay as a means of carrying out its mandate to keep students safe. Section 34-18 of the School Code codifies the principle that the Board “shall also exercise all other powers that they may be requisite or proper for the maintenance and the development of a public school system.” 105 ILCS 5/34-18.
The Court emphasized that the Board’s power to make rules would be eviscerated and its ability to manage the school system would be ineffective if it could not elect to suspend a teacher when the evidence did not establish cause for a dismissal. The Court concluded that a failure to sustain a termination does not deprive a school board of its authority to suspend. It did not view this suspension as some type of “double jeopardy”, by choosing alternative discipline for this teacher when termination did not succeed. The Court referenced its prior conclusions in Spinelli that:
There is implied in this obligation to make rules and regulations, and to enforce them, a power in the board to mete out discipline to those who violate the rules and regulations. Enforcement envisions effective sanctions of some sort. If that were not the case, the power to make rules would indeed be a hollow one and effective management and government could not be accomplished. [quotations omitted]
The Court found that after completing a full evidentiary hearing as required for a dismissal proceeding, a school board’s power to discipline teachers should not be limited only to dismissal or reinstatement. The Court posited that such a rigid, inflexible application of the School Code would be inconsistent with legislative intent of the statute by interfering with a school board’s authority and discretion to implement individualized disciplinary consequences and plans. The Court stated that in enacting the School Code, the legislature could not have intended absurd, inconvenient, or injust consequences in discipline cases and found neither teachers, students nor the school system would benefit by an inflexible dismiss-or-reinstate discipline system rather than a remedial discipline system where individualized decisions are made that can be more reasonable, just, and fair.
The Court reasoned that this interpretation of school board authority under the School Code is consistent with the principles of statutory interpretation, which is to view all the provisions of a statute as a whole, and that sections of the same statute should be considered together to give effect to each component. The Court found that a school board can suspend a teacher under the general supervision provision in Section 34-18 of the School Code and a school board also has the associate, but separate power to dismiss a teacher for cause in Section 34- 85 of the School Code by concluding:
Suspending or dismissing a teacher are sanctions authorized by the School Code that are independent of each other and do not conflict. Consequently, we hold that the suspension power in section 34-18 is not inconsistent with and does not conflict with the dismissal power codified in section 34-85. In our view, it is a better use of the administrative body’s resources to hold [a teacher’s] disciplinary hearing and to impose sanctions in the same proceeding. Thus, the School Code empowered the Board with discretion to dismiss or suspend a teacher at the conclusion of the disciplinary proceeding.
Finally, it is worth noting that this matter arose under Article 34 of the School Code, which governs the operations of the Chicago school system. While the provisions of Sections 34-18 and 34-85 of the School Code which provide the separate authority to suspend and to dismiss for the Chicago School Board, including the rights to reinstatement and backpay if a termination is not sustained, are not identical to those provisions of Sections 20-10 and 24-12 of the School Code which apply to all school districts other than Chicago, the language is substantially similar. The reasoning and conclusions of the Illinois Supreme Court regarding the Chicago School Board rights to suspend and dismiss would appear to be equally applicable to those provisions which govern those school districts other than Chicago. The Court did emphasize in its analysis that the Illinois courts have recognized that Articles 10, 24, and 34 of the School Code have parallel provisions which have been interpreted to be equally applicable to both systems. Citing to In re Estate of Wilson, 238 Ill. 2d 519, 563-64 (2010) (where statutes that deal with similar subject matter have parallel provisions, it can be assumed that the legislature was aware of the case law construing the provisions and intended for them to be construed and applied similarly); Board of Education of City of Chicago v. A, C & S, Inc., 131 Ill. 2d 428, 468 (1989) (when interpreting statutory language for the first time it is appropriate statutory construction to consider similar enactments).