O'Connell v. School Dist. of Springfield R-12, R-12

Decision Date21 April 1992
Docket NumberR,No. 74218,R-12,74218
Citation830 S.W.2d 410
Parties75 Ed. Law Rep. 626 Kathleen O'CONNELL, Appellant, v. The SCHOOL DISTRICT OF SPRINGFIELDespondent.
CourtMissouri Supreme Court

William A.R. Dalton, Springfield, for appellant.

Ransom A. Ellis III, Cynthia J. Hyde, Springfield, for respondent.

Steven L. Wright, Gen. Counsel, Mo. School Boards Assn., Columbia, for amicus, Mo. School Bds. Assn. and Mo. Assn. School Administrators.

COVINGTON, Judge.

Appellant Kathleen O'Connell was a tenured, permanent teacher under an indefinite employment contract with the School District of Springfield R-12. §§ 168.104(4) and 168.106, RSMo 1986. The District terminated appellant's indefinite contract on August 1, 1990, for "incompetency and inefficiency as set forth in § 168.114.1(3), RSMo." Upon appeal the circuit court affirmed the District's decision. § 168.120, RSMo 1986. The Missouri Court of Appeals, Southern District, reversed. This Court granted transfer to consider whether O'Connell received adequate notice of the charges against her. The judgment of the circuit court is affirmed.

On January 31, 1990, the District superintendent of schools provided written notice to appellant of claimed deficiencies in her job performance. The notice was in the form of a letter that, in its first paragraph, advised appellant that if the deficiencies were not "removed by the end of the second semester," charges might be filed against her. The letter continued:

In spite of the efforts of the District Administrators, deficiencies in your performance remain. In past years, numerous conferences have been held with you. During these conferences, suggestions and directives have been given by an Assistance Team and District Administrators to assist in the improvement of your performance. However, to date, significant improvement has not occurred. Accordingly, this letter constitutes a statutory warning that if satisfactory improvement is not made by June 9, 1990, formal charges will be brought against you and your employment may be terminated.

Areas of performance deficiencies include the following:

A. INSTRUCTIONAL PROCESS

1. Failure to use a variety of effective teaching techniques and methodologies.

2. Failure to use instruction time effectively.

3. Failure to demonstrate effective planning skills.

4. Failure to communicate effectively with students.

5. Failure to provide effective student evaluation.

6. Failure to provide opportunity for individual differences.

B. CLASSROOM MANAGEMENT

1. Failure to manage student behavior in an appropriate manner.

2. Failure to establish and maintain a positive classroom climate conducive to learning.

C. POSITIVE INTERPERSONAL RELATIONS

1. Failure to demonstrate effective interpersonal relations with students.

Although these deficiencies are of the gravest nature, it is our hope that the deficiencies may be removed and, to that extent, we are willing to make available for your assistance the continued services of District teachers and administrators. Please contact Dr. Ann Barefield and Mr. Bill Reed to arrange a conference at your convenience to discuss methods for improvement.

On June 6, 1990, an eighteen-page written "Statement of Charges Preferred Against Kathleen O'Connell" provided notice of formal charges against appellant. The superintendent of schools notified appellant by letter that appellant could request the Board of Education to conduct a hearing to consider the charges against her. Appellant requested a hearing. At the hearing on July 21, 1990, a stenographic verbatim record was made, a transcript of which was completed and filed with the Board. Following the filing of the transcript, the Board rendered its decision terminating appellant's employment on the grounds of incompetency and inefficiency.

Appellant's first point on appeal alleges that the January 31, 1990, letter failed to set forth the deficiencies with sufficient particularity to satisfy the requirements of § 168.116, RSMo 1986, and that, as a consequence, the action taken by the district is void.

Section 168.116 sets forth the procedures to be followed in order to terminate an indefinite contract of a permanent teacher on grounds of incompetency or inefficiency. In pertinent part, § 168.116 reads as follows:

2. At least thirty days before service of notice of charges of incompetency, inefficiency, or insubordination in the line of duty, the teacher shall be given by the school board or the superintendent of schools warning in writing, stating specifically the causes which, if not removed, may result in charges. Thereafter, both the superintendent, or his designated representative, and the teacher shall meet and confer in an effort to resolve the matter.

§ 168.116.2, RSMo 1986.

Prior to any hearing that may occur pursuant to § 168.118, RSMo 1986, § 168.116 requires compliance with a three-step process, the first two of which are explained in Selby v. North Callaway Bd. of Educ., 777 S.W.2d 275 (Mo.App.1989):

"1. Under § 168.116.2 a written warning must be given the teacher by the school board, "stating specifically the causes which, if not removed, may result in charges." Section 168.116.1. This is referred to as the "warning letter."

2. The next step is the superintendent or a designated representative must "meet and confer with the teacher, in an effort to resolve the matter." Section 168.116.2. The teacher is to be given at least 30 days during this period to remedy the deficiencies noted in the warning letter. Id.; Hanlon v. Board of Education of Parkway School District, 695 S.W.2d 930, 932 (Mo.App.1985). This 30 day period can be expanded, and will be referred to as the "curative period." "The purpose of § 168.116.2 is to give the teacher an opportunity to know exactly what the complaints against him are and afford him an opportunity to cure the situation before charges are brought." [Adkins v. Hazelwood School District, 743 S.W.2d 869, 872 (Mo.App.1987) ]."

Id. at 276.

The inquiry in this case focuses on the purpose of the warning letter. The purpose of the warning letter is to guarantee the teacher an opportunity to know exactly what the complaints are against him or her and to afford the teacher a chance to cure the situation before the charges are brought. Artherton v. Bd. of Educ. of School Dist. of St. Joseph, 744 S.W.2d 518, 521 (Mo.App.1988); Adkins v. Hazelwood School Dist., 743 S.W.2d at 872; Iven v. Hazelwood School Dist., 710 S.W.2d 462, 464 (Mo.App.1986); Rainwater v. Bd. of Educ. of Greenville, 645 S.W.2d 172, 175 (Mo.App.1982); Blue Springs Reorganized School Dist. IV v. Landuyt, 499 S.W.2d 33, 36 (Mo.App.1973). The determination of whether a warning letter fulfills the requirements of § 168.116.2 must necessarily be made on a case-by-case basis. The question must always be whether the intent and purpose of the warning requirement is met under the facts and circumstances of the case presented.

Appellant relies principally upon Pollard v. Bd. of Educ. Reorganized School Dist., 533 S.W.2d 667 (Mo.App.1976); Dameron v. Bd. of Educ. of Lebanon School Dist., 549 S.W.2d 671 (Mo.App.1977); Cozad v. Crane School Dist., 716 S.W.2d 408 (Mo.App.1986); and Jefferson Consol. School Dist. v. Carden, 772 S.W.2d 753 (Mo.App.1989). The notice of deficiencies in Pollard and Dameron were stated in general language similar to the language of the January 31 warning letter to appellant. In both cases the courts found the notices to be insufficient. Appellant contrasts the notices in Pollard, Dameron, and her own case with that given in Cozad v. Crane School Dist. The Cozad letter set forth the general causes of the deficiencies, then provided particular examples of the teacher's performance. See Cozad, 716 S.W.2d at 410-11.

On its face, the warning letter sent to appellant appears to lack the specificity required in Pollard and Dameron and approved in Cozad. It is notable, however, that in none of the cases upon which appellant relies is there an indication that the teacher was made aware of problems prior to receipt of the warning letter. The Pollard opinion evidences no indication of notice of previous difficulties. See Pollard, 533 S.W.2d at 668-70. In Dameron, the first time that Mr. Dameron received specific information regarding the nature of complaints against him was the day of the hearing. Dameron, 549 S.W.2d at 674. In Jefferson, which involved charges under § 168.116.1, rather than notice of deficiencies under § 168.116.2, there was no complaint about the warning letter, but the court found the charges under § 168.116.1 to be too vague for the teacher to contradict or explain. Jefferson, 772 S.W.2d at 759. In Jefferson the teacher had been consistently evaluated as satisfactory, the most recent evaluation having been made only five months prior to the warning and containing no adverse comments. Id. at 753.

While the letter received by appellant may appear to lack sufficient specificity, it cannot be considered in a vacuum. In contrast to the cases upon which appellant relies, the warning letter in this case followed a lengthy and detailed process of evaluation in which appellant received numerous evaluations written in language identical to that contained in the termination letter. Read with the evaluations preceding, the warning letter was sufficiently specific so as to provide notice of deficiencies, thereby giving appellant the opportunity to improve. Under the facts and circumstances it is unreasonable, if not impossible, to find that the purposes of § 168.116.2 were not achieved.

It is important to set forth the basis upon which the school district evaluated its teachers. In 1988 the District adopted and implemented a detailed performance-based teacher evaluation system. The District promulgated a Teacher Performance Evaluation Handbook. The Handbook sets forth...

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