Board’s decision to discharge a tenured teacher was erroneous.
In 2015, tenured teacher Timothy Burgess (Burgess) was dismissed from his teaching position by the Board of Education of Ottawa Township High School District No. 140 (Board). Burgess appealed the Board’s decision and a tenured teacher dismissal hearing was held pursuant to Article 24 of the School Code. Following a three-day hearing, Ill. State Board of Education hearing officer Danielle Carne (Carne) found that Burgess’s conduct did not violate the prohibitions and mandates he had previously been issued via a Notice to Remedy in 2009. As a result, Carne recommended that the Board reverse its dismissal of Burgess. The Board believed Carne’s findings and conclusions were flawed, so it rejected her recommendation and upheld its dismissal of Burgess.
Burgess filed a complaint for administrative review in the circuit court. Upon review, the circuit court found that while the Board was wrong to find that Carne’s findings were erroneous, Burgess’s conduct was not remediable. Accordingly, the circuit court affirmed the Board’s dismissal of Burgess.
Burgess then appealed to the Third District Appellate Court (Court). The Court employed a two-part process to review the dismissal. First, it reviewed the Board’s supplemental factual findings, as well as Carne’s factual findings that were incorporated, unmodified, into the Board’s decision, to determine whether those findings were against the manifest weight of the evidence. Second, it applied the clearly erroneous standard of review to determine whether the Board’s findings of fact provided a sufficient basis for its conclusion regarding whether Burgess should be dismissed or retained.
Reviewing the evidence, the Court found that the Board’s supplemental factual findings were against the manifest weight of the evidence, in part because the Board “went to great lengths” to discredit witnesses that favored Burgess while disregarding discrepancies that weighed against the credibility of the administration’s witnesses. The Court further found that the Board’s decision to dismiss Burgess was clearly erroneous. In doing so, it noted that the 2009 Notice to Remedy concerned displays of anger by Burgess in front of staff, parents, students, Board members, and the public – thus it related to Burgess’s fitness as a teacher and the school’s interests in maintaining discipline and operating effectively. In contrast, the conduct that allegedly violated the Notice to Remedy (and which formed the basis for the 2015 dismissal) occurred in private contexts at closed-door union meetings. Though the Court did not condone Burgess’s conduct at those meetings, it held that “no logical nexus exists between this conduct and Burgess’s fitness to perform as a teacher.” Accordingly, the Board’s dismissal decision was arbitrary, unreasonable, and clearly erroneous. The Court reversed the Board’s dismissal of Burgess and remanded the case to circuit court for further proceedings consistent with its decision.