The principal discovered the problems in the kindergarten class when the teacher, Ms. Riou, went out on FMLA leave. The substitute could not find a record of benchmark testing or grades. Upon further investigation, the school administration determined that there was a serious problem. The superintendent recommended termination of Ms. Riou’s contract. The board approved.
Years later the case ended up before our state’s highest court. The teacher asserted that the school district never produced evidence to show that she had violated standards of conduct for the profession “as generally recognized and applied in similarly situated school districts” in Texas. In the termination hearing the district did not present a witness to testify about how this would be handled in “similarly situated school districts.” This is the standard for termination of a continuing contract as per T.E.C. 21.156(a). The teacher’s lawyer argued that this fatally doomed the school district’s case.
The case first went to T.E.A. The Commissioner acknowledged the lack of evidence about “similarly situated school districts” but held that in this case it did not matter. Ms. Riou’s conduct amounted to “good cause per se” sufficient for the board to terminate her employment.
The words “good cause per se” are not to be found in the Education Code. But the Commissioner concluded that some behavior is so obviously grounds for termination that the district does not have to present evidence of standards applied in “similarly situated school districts.”
The Texas Supreme Court rejected that reasoning, noting that there is “no support in the law for good cause per se.” So the teacher wins? No. The court noted that grading and testing are required of all teachers by state law. State law provides a standard of conduct that is “generally recognized and applied” in all districts. Key Quotes:
A state law or regulation imposed generally on ALL districts can be evidence of a “generally recognized and applied” standard of conduct. (Emphasis in the original).
The district need not have introduced specific evidence that individual districts view grading and testing as indispensable job responsibilities for a classroom teacher, as that standard is incorporated in state law.
Thus the Supreme Court reached the same destination as the Commissioner, but by a different route. The Commissioner cited “good cause per se” and the court noted that the teacher’s conduct violated standards incorporated by state law. Either way, the teacher is out of a job.
The lesson for the future is that school lawyers in a teacher termination case can present a witness who testifies about the standards in similarly situated districts, or they can present evidence about standards incorporated into the law. Some of you may be thinking that this case has little impact, since it deals with a continuing contract teacher, of which there are not many. However, the same standards apply to the termination of a probationary contract prior to its normal expiration date. So I would call the legal issue here obscure, but in some cases, critical.
The case is North East ISD v. Riou, decided by the Texas Supreme Court on March 27, 2020.
DAWG BONE: SO I GUESS WE WON’T BE HEARING “GOOD CAUSE PER SE” ANYMORE.
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