Court tells T.E.A. it has more jurisdiction than it thought.

Hello Lubbock!!  The Dawg kicks off the Back to School tour at Region 17 in Lubbock today.  I will be reviewing cases from the past year that deal with students, parents, and employees.   If time permits, we might even get to discuss the very recent and interesting case of Texas Commissioner of Education v. Solis. 

 Dr. Solis lost her appeal to T.E.A. because the Agency ruled that it lacked jurisdiction to hear the case. T.E.A. held that Dr. Solis had not exhausted administrative remedies at the school district level—therefore, she could not take the matter to T.E.A.

The Court of Appeals has reversed that decision and sent the case back to the Agency for a ruling on Dr. Solis’s appeal.  This is an important case for lawyers who handle cases before the Agency.  It’s also a setback to the Agency’s view of its own jurisdiction.

What’s this about?  Mission CISD hired Dr. Solis on a “non-chapter 21” contract for the 2012-13 school year. The contract was very explicit: Chapter 21 procedures did not apply.  If the district decided not to renew the contract, the district would not be obligated to go through the nonrenewal procedures required by Chapter 21.  At the end of the 2012-13 school year, the district informed Dr. Solis that she would not be brought back for the next year.

So what could she complain about? After all, she signed a contract that made it very clear that she was not protected by Chapter 21. What’s the gripe?

The district hired Dr. Solis as Executive Director for State and Federal Programs. But two months into the contract, the district reassigned her to be an assistant principal at a middle school.  Spring rolled around and the district chose not to renew the contract.  Dr. Solis at first claimed that this was an act of retaliation because she had previously filed a grievance.  The board gave her a hearing on that, and upheld the Superintendent’s decision not to offer another contract.

Dr. Solis then appealed to T.E.A.  After some preliminary skirmishing, Dr. Solis tried to make her case under Texas Education Code 7.057, which allows parties to appeal to T.E.A. if they are “aggrieved” by actions  of the local school board that “violate the school laws of this state.”

T.E.A. ruled against her without ever addressing the very interesting issue at the heart of this case: can a district 1) give an employee a non-Chapter 21 contract; 2) move the employee to a position that requires a Chapter 21 contract; and then 3) nonrenew the contract without providing Chapter 21 procedures?  T.E.A. did not answer that question.  It ruled that it lacked jurisdiction in the case because Dr. Solis had not raised this specific issue before the local board. Thus, she failed to exhaust her administrative remedies.

Now, the Court of Appeals has sent the case back to T.E.A. for a decision on the merits. In the meantime, we learn from this case that a person can appeal to the Agency over any decision by the local school board if they allege that the board’s action violates the school laws of Texas.   Key Quotes:

The statute does not require that the aggrieved person have participated in a hearing before the board, but only that the board have made a “decision” or taken “action.”

In the Commissioner’s view, if no hearing is held at the school district level and no administrative record is created, there is nothing for the Commissioner to subject to substantial evidence review. We disagree.

Section 7.057 of the Texas Education Code provides for an appeal to the Commissioner when a person is aggrieved by an action or decision of a board of trustees that violates the Texas school law.  The Commissioner may not, through his rules or policies, narrow the availability of that appeal.

This case is probably of more interest to lawyers than educators, as it is about the legal doctrine of “exhaustion of administrative remedies.”  As a general rule, courts do not hear cases that could be decided by administrative agencies until after the administrative agency has ruled on the case.  In this case, T.E.A. applied that same standard to parties who want to appeal from a local school board to the state agency.  The court emphatically tells the Agency that the “exhaustion” doctrine does not apply in that situation.

Interesting. What will be even more interesting is the Agency’s ultimate decision about Dr. Solis’s reassignment and nonrenewal without hearing.  Stay tuned.

The case of Texas Commissioner of Education v. Solis was decided by the Court of Appeals in Austin on August 22, 2018. We found it at 2018 WL 3999598.


Tomorrow: Toolbox Tuesday! Let’s re-visit the FAPE Free Zone.