Dismissal of Tenured Teacher for Cause Upheld
The Illinois Appellate Court for the 2nd District (Court) considered an appeal from the Circuit Court of Lake County (Circuit Court) and determined that a school district properly dismissed a tenured teacher for cause in 2019 because she had failed to use professional judgment and follow the Board’s policies and procedures as required by a 2016 Notice of Remedial Warning.
In 2016 Racheal Kalisz (Plaintiff) was a tenured teacher at Kildeer Countryside Comm. Consol. Sch. Dist. 96 (District) when she was placed on suspension with pay while the Ill. Dept. of Children and Family Services (DCFS) investigated her for an allegation of abuse involving her own children. While the DCFS investigation was pending, Plaintiff met with District administrators four times regarding the matter. At the first meeting Plaintiff refused to answer the District’s questions. At the second meeting Plaintiff refused to answer most of the District’s questions, but she denied than a physical confrontation had occurred. On April 6, 2016, Plaintiff received a letter from DCFS stating that the allegation of abuse against her was unfounded, Plaintiff’s union representative forwarded the letter to the Board, and Plaintiff met with the District for a third time. When questioned, Plaintiff stated she couldn’t remember if there was physical contact during the incident that led to the DCFS investigation but stated there was “possibly shoving.” Subsequently the Board received a copy of DCFS’s full report, and the District discovered the information in the report was inconsistent with what Plaintiff had stated in her meetings. On May 3, 2016, Plaintiff met with the District for a fourth time and claimed the DCFS report was inaccurate. The District believed Plaintiff was lying because the DCFS report contained consistent stories from multiple individuals, and the consequences of lying to DCFS would have been significant for Plaintiff. As a result, the District recommended that the Board issue Plaintiff a Notice of Remedial Warning. On May 17, 2016, the Board approved a Notice of Remedial Warning informing Plaintiff that her conduct was unprofessional and unsatisfactory because she failed to cooperate with the Board’s investigation of the DCFS matter, obstructed the Board’s investigation process, and provided untruthful statements. The Notice of Remedial Warning also warned Plaintiff that the following conduct, if repeated, could result in dismissal charges: 1) engaging in conduct unbecoming a Board employee, 2) failing to cooperate with Board administration during its investigation, 3) giving false statements to Board administration during its investigation, 4) showing poor professional judgment and unprofessional conduct, 5) violating Board policy 5:120, Ethics and Conduct, 6) engaging in misconduct as defined by Board policy, including behavior that disrupts the educational process and immoral conduct, 7) violating Board policy by failing to maintain standards of service required by a teacher, and 8) engaging in insubordinate conduct by disregarding Board policies and directives. To remedy her unprofessional and unsatisfactory conduct, Plaintiff was directed, among other things, to abide by all expectations set forth in Board policies, be truthful when communicating with administration and in her teaching duties, exercise appropriate and professional judgment as a teacher, conduct herself in a professional manner, and follow all board policies, procedures, and practices.
During the 2017-2018 school year, Plaintiff taught in a school using a model where each classroom had a content teacher (Plaintiff) and a specialist who assisted in designing lesson plans for specific populations of students. The Board learned that from November 2017 through March 2018, Plaintiff often left her classroom during co-teaching and while students were present, and for various reasons (including to make a phone call, rearrange an airline flight, and smoke a cigarette). On one occasion, Plaintiff told her co-teacher she was having stomach problems and left for the day but Plaintiff did not notify the administration, seek approval, request personal or sick time to cover her absence, or request a substitute teacher. The Board began an investigation and Plaintiff admitted that she left the classroom often and for various reasons. The District recommended to the Board that the Plaintiff be dismissed, and the Board approved this recommendation at a June 2018 Board meeting. Plaintiff was sent a Notice of Charges, including a Bill of Particulars, stating the reasons for her dismissal. Such reasons included exercising unprofessional judgment and violating Board policies related to ethics, conduct, responsibilities, and duties – behaviors that Plaintiff failed to remediate as required by her 2016 Notice of Remedial Warning.
Plaintiff requested a tenured teacher dismissal hearing, during which she testified that the 2016 Notice of Remedial Warning said nothing about leaving the classroom, taking too frequent restroom breaks, or failing to notify the administration about an emergency absence. Plaintiff claimed that if she had been allowed to correct these deficiencies then she could have remedied the behavior. On May 10, 2019, the hearing officer issued a written opinion finding that the Board had cause to dismiss Plaintiff and recommended that the dismissal be upheld. The hearing officer noted that Plaintiff demonstrated a lack of professional judgment, which she was warned about in 2016, therefore Plaintiff’s dismissal complied with the School Code because Plaintiff failed to remediate her behavior. The Board adopted the hearing officer’s findings and recommendations, and passed a resolution affirming Plaintiff’s dismissal. Plaintiff sought administrative review of the Board’s decision, and on January 7, 2020 following a hearing, the Circuit Court found the Board’s decision to dismiss Plaintiff was clearly erroneous. The Board then appealed to the Court.
On appeal, the Board argued that the Circuit Court erred because the 2016 Notice of Remedial Warning required Plaintiff to use professional judgment and follow the Board’s policies and procedures. Plaintiff counter-argued that the 2016 Notice of Remedial Warning could not be the basis for her dismissal because it was based on dishonesty and failing to cooperate, whereas the 2018 charges were not.
The School Code requires that before a teacher can be dismissed for conduct considered remediable, “a board must give the teacher reasonable warning in writing, stating specifically the causes that, if not removed, may result in charges.” 105 ILCS 5/24-12(d)(1). If warning is not given, then the board lacks jurisdiction to dismiss the teacher. In reviewing a teacher dismissal, courts evaluate whether a board’s factual findings are against the manifest weight of the evidence, and whether those findings provide a sufficient basis for dismissal. Generally a Board’s decision is reviewed, but because the Board adopted the hearing officer’s decision, the Court reviewed the hearing officer’s decision to determine if it was erroneous. In this case the factual findings were not disputed by either party, so the only issue before the Court was whether the factual findings supported the Board’s conclusion that cause existed to dismiss Plaintiff.
After reviewing the hearing record, the Court determined that the Board’s conclusion that Plaintiff’s 2017-2018 conduct violated the 2016 Notice of Remedial Warning was a proper basis for dismissal. The Court reasoned that in 2016 Plaintiff was specifically warned to exercise appropriate and professional judgment, to conduct herself professionally, and to follow all Board policies and practices, and stated “[t]here is no question that the plaintiff’s conduct in 2017-2018 violated these warnings.” The Court reversed the Circuit Court’s decision and upheld the Board’s dismissal of Plaintiff.