Five Lessons from a Recent Nonrenewal Decision

On June 15th of this year the Commissioner signed off on a decision to nonrenew a teacher’s contract.  There are five key lessons about the nonrenewal process that we can draw from this decision.

First, the recommendation of the principal is not legally required.  We discussed this point in more detail here on Monday.  As noted on Monday, it is rare and a bit problematic when the principal has not recommended nonrenewal. It raises questions.  But the Commissioner found nothing in the law, or Board Policy DFBB(Local) that absolutely requires a principal’s recommendation.

Second, this is yet another case that illustrates that “Substantial evidence is not a high standard.”  This teacher lost her job because, on one occasion, she “roughly grabbed a student” in a way that was “unnecessary and without justification” and caused a “soft tissue injury.”  There was evidence in the record about a prior incident from an earlier year, but this was considered only for the purpose of proving that the teacher was “on notice” of the district’s standards.  The evidence that supported the nonrenewal consisted of the single incident of “rough grabbing.”  The Commissioner’s decision provides no context for this. We learn nothing about the teacher’s track record with the district.  This one event was sufficient to end her employment.

Third, teachers who do not testify at their own nonrenewal hearings take a big risk.  The Commissioner noted that “Because Petitioner did not testify, it is inferred Petitioner knew her testimony would not support her case.”

Fourth, school districts must produce its employees to testify at a nonrenewal hearing upon proper request by the teacher.  The Commissioner cited an earlier case for this:

School districts can compel their employees to testify.  For the hearing to be fair, teachers must also have the ability to compel school employees to testify.

(Kopycinski v. Fort Bend ISD, Dkt. No. 111-R1-598 (Comm’r Educ. 1998).

In this particular case, this rule of fair play did not help the teacher. She had asked for two school employees to testify and they did not.  But the Commissioner held that 1) this was a procedural error that was not properly preserved by the teacher’s lawyer; and 2) this procedural error would not have produced a different outcome anyway.  The statements of the two employees were read into the record.  Those statements said that the teacher grabbed the student on the arm, not the neck. The Commissioner said this was irrelevant: “Exactly where Petitioner grabbed the student is not significant.”

Fifth, a teacher facing possible nonrenewal of a contract is not entitled to “due process.” There is no “property interest” at stake.  In support of this well-established point of law, the Commissioner cited six prior cases.

The case is Hernandez v. Point Isabel ISD, Dkt. No. 025-R1-04-2016, decided by Commissioner Morath on June 15, 2016.