504 N.W.2d 572 (S.D. 1993), 17839, Riter v. Woonsocket School Dist. No. 55-4

Docket Nº:17839.
Citation:504 N.W.2d 572
Opinion Judge:The opinion of the court was delivered by: Sabers
Party Name:Douglas D. RITER, Appellant, v. WOONSOCKET SCHOOL DISTRICT # 55-4, and the Woonsocket School Board, Appellees.
Attorney:Thomas K. Wilka of Hagen, Wilka, Schreier & Archer, Sioux Falls, South Dakota, Attorneys for appellant.
Case Date:August 04, 1993
Court:Supreme Court of South Dakota
 
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Page 572

504 N.W.2d 572 (S.D. 1993)

Douglas D. RITER, Appellant,

v.

WOONSOCKET SCHOOL DISTRICT # 55-4, and the Woonsocket School

Board, Appellees.

No. 17839.

Supreme Court of South Dakota.

August 4, 1993

       Argued Nov. 16, 1992.

Page 573

       Thomas K. Wilka of Hagen, Wilka, Schreier & Archer, Sioux Falls, for appellant.

       Gerald L. Kaufman, Jr. of Churchill, Manolis, Freeman, Kludt and Kaufman, Huron, for appellees.

       SABERS, Justice.

       Tenured teacher and coach appeals his nonrenewal as head boy's basketball coach. We reverse.

       FACTS

       On November 13, 1990, Leo Uken (Uken), Chairman of the Woonsocket School Board (Board), met with Douglas Riter (Riter) 1 to discuss Riter's resignation as head boy's basketball coach. At a special meeting of the Board on November 15, Riter was asked to resign. After refusing to resign, the Board voted to suspend Riter, with pay, as head boy's basketball coach. Riter retained counsel and served notice of appeal on Uken. Under the advice of the Board's attorney, Riter was reinstated November 20.

       Jens Andree (Andree), Woonsocket High School's principal and athletic director, evaluated Riter on February 22, 1991, and "recommended with reservations" that Riter's position as head boy's basketball coach be renewed. On March 11, he withdrew his recommendation to renew and recommended instead that Riter not be renewed as head basketball coach. Andree testified that this change in recommendation was due to a letter he received from the South Dakota High School Activities Association Executive Director (Marlyn Goldhammer) citing various incidents of unprofessional conduct on the part of the Woonsocket assistant boy's basketball coach, Larry Ogle (Ogle). According to the letter, Ogle had verbally abused two officials during and following a recent game and had been in the locker room with the team when the officials heard team members using profanity.

       During the March 11 board meeting, Riter's position as head boy's basketball coach was discussed. Riter was subsequently informed of the Board's intent not to renew that portion of his contract. After an informal conference on March 22, the Board voted not to renew Riter as head basketball coach. Riter submitted a written request for a formal hearing which was held April 17. The Board sustained its decision not to renew Riter's contract as head boy's basketball coach and Riter appealed. After a trial de novo, the circuit court affirmed the Board. On appeal, Riter presents three issues.

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       1. Whether the due process requirement of an impartial decisionmaker in teacher termination proceedings was violated by the Woonsocket Board.

       2. Whether the Board's decision was arbitrary, capricious, or an abuse of discretion.

       3. Whether reinstatement with back pay or damages is the appropriate remedy.

       DECISION

       Under SDCL 13-46-1, an aggrieved teacher may appeal the decision of a school board not to renew his contract to the circuit court for a trial de novo. Jager v. Ramona Bd. of Educ., 444 N.W.2d 21, 25 (S.D.1989); Moran v. Rapid City Area Sch. Dist., 281 N.W.2d 595, 598 (S.D.1979). The appeal is not, however, a trial de novo "in the true sense of the phrase." It has the limited function of receiving evidence for the sole purpose of " 'determining the legality, and not the propriety, of the school board's decision.' " Strain v. Rapid City Sch. Bd., 447 N.W.2d 332, 338 (S.D.1989) (quoting Moran, 281 N.W.2d at 598).

       The determination of the legality of the decision of the board is two-pronged. It must be determined "[f]irst, whether the school board acted legally, and second, whether the school board's decision was arbitrary, capricious, or an abuse of their discretion." Moran, 281 N.W.2d at 599 (citations omitted). A violation of either prong is an independent ground upon which to conclude that the school board's actions were illegal. Id.

       Under the first prong, the procedural legality of the school board's action is reviewed. This includes determining whether the school board was vested with statutory authority to act and whether it complied with procedural requirements imposed by law. Id. The school board must comply with both statutory and constitutional procedural requirements. Id. "A violation of an individual's due process, equal protection, first amendment, or other rights guaranteed by our state or federal constitutions, even if there is full compliance with the statutory requirements, is grounds for a determination that the school board acted illegally and therefore its decision was illegal." Id. An individual's constitutional right to due process includes fair and impartial consideration by the school board. Id. at 600.

A fair trial in a fair tribunal is a basic requirement of due process. This applies to administrative agencies which adjudicate as well [as] to courts. Not only is a biased decision maker constitutionally unacceptable, but our system of law has always endeavored to prevent even the probability of unfairness.

       Strain, 447 N.W.2d at 336 (citations omitted).

       In determining whether the Board's decision not to renew Riter's contract was considered fairly and impartially by an unbiased school board, "[t]he standard to be applied is whether the record establishes either actual bias on the part of the Board or the existence of circumstances that lead to the conclusion that an unacceptable risk of actual bias or prejudgment inhered in the Board's procedure." Id. (citations omitted). Involvement by the Board, however, prior to the board's decision not to renew a contract, "is not enough to overcome the presumption of honesty and integrity in policymakers with decisionmaking power." Hortonville Joint Sch. Dist. v. Hortonville Educ. Assoc., 426 U.S. 482, 497, 96 S.Ct. 2308, 2316, 49 L.Ed.2d 1, 11-12 (1976) (citation omitted). The Board and its members are afforded a strong presumption of good faith. Moran, 281 N.W.2d at 600 (citations omitted). This deference, however, "must be balanced with a teacher's right to security in employment and to prevent dismissal of a teacher without cause." Jager, 444 N.W.2d at 25 (citation omitted).

       In Schneider v. McLaughlin Indep. Sch. Dist., 90 S.D. 356, 241 N.W.2d 574 (1976), we acknowledged the impossibility of having a hearing before a board that has no prior knowledge of the facts and concluded "it is sufficient to meet the requirements of a fair tribunal that the board base its decision upon competent, credible evidence and

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that there be no evidence of actual bias toward the teacher whose contract is not being renewed." Schneider, 241 N.W.2d at 577 (emphasis added). Unlike Moran and Strain, however, the record in this case is replete with evidence establishing actual bias on the part of the Board toward Riter.

       Although four of the five Board members, Uken, Morris Brosnan (Brosnan), Keith Senska (Senska) and Wayne Feistner (Feistner), testified that their decision not to renew Riter as head boy's basketball coach was based upon Andree's recommendation, the testimony at the formal hearing and the trial de novo indicates otherwise.

  1. On November 15, 1990, on a vote of four...

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