A teacher was accused of sending non-work related emails to female students late at night while he was intoxicated. Some of the emails were sexually suggestive. He also invited two female students to his home to drink alcohol. The teacher was placed on administrative leave with pay and submitted a signed statement, admitting to the allegations. The district notified the teacher that it intended to recommend to the board of trustees that his contract be terminated and that he be suspended without pay pending discharge. The teacher tendered a letter of resignation that was effective at the end of the school year.
The board of trustees voted to suspend the teacher without pay in lieu of termination on March 5, 2019. His leave without pay became effective on the same date as the board action. The teacher requested a hearing regarding the suspension without pay. The hearing took place on May 7, 2019.
At the hearing, the teacher did not deny that he engaged in inappropriate conduct. His only argument was that the suspension without pay should not have become effective on the day that the board acted (March 5), but rather should take effect after he had his hearing (May 7).
The district board of trustees considered the recommendation of the hearing examiner (who had recommended suspension without pay beginning on a different date) and voted to suspend the teacher without pay as of March 5, 2019. The teacher appealed this determination to the commissioner of education.
The commissioner ruled against the district, holding that the district must continue to pay the teacher until he had an opportunity for a hearing. The district appealed to the district court, which agreed with the commissioner of education. Finally, the district appealed to the First Court of Appeals.
The court of appeals noted that a school district begins the process of suspending a teacher without pay by notifying the teacher that the district has proposed to suspend the teacher. At this point, no decision to suspend the teacher has been made. The teacher then has 15 days to request a hearing. At the hearing, the district and teacher both have the opportunity to present evidence and arguments to support their positions, and a hearing examiner makes the determination as to which side is credible. Once the hearing is complete, the hearing examiner presents a recommendation to the board of trustees, who then votes as to whether the teacher should be suspended.
The district argued that it should be able to stop paying the teacher while the hearing process is pending and reimburse the teacher later in the event that the teacher won at hearing. However, the court of appeals disagreed. The clear language of the law states that a school district must give a teacher an opportunity for a hearing before it can suspend the teacher without pay.
In this case, the district was attempting to suspend the teacher without pay as of the date that it began the process, before it had formally made the decision to suspend the teacher without pay after considering the arguments made during the hearing. The court of appeals agreed with the commissioner of education and ordered the school district to pay the teacher back pay that was accrued while the hearing was pending.