Leola School Dist. v. McMahan, 86-14

Decision Date21 July 1986
Docket NumberNo. 86-14,86-14
Citation289 Ark. 496,712 S.W.2d 903
Parties, 33 Ed. Law Rep. 1281 LEOLA SCHOOL DISTRICT, Appellant, v. Lucille MCMAHAN, Appellee.
CourtArkansas Supreme Court

G. Ross Smith & Associates by W. Paul Blume, Little Rock, for appellant.

Cearley, Mitchell & Roachell by Marcia Barnes, Little Rock, for appellee.

HOLT, Chief Justice.

The appellee, Lucille McMahan, was a nonprobationary teacher who had been employed by appellant, Leola School District, for eleven years. During the 1981-82 school year, Mrs. McMahan was the subject of complaints from some parents concerning her alleged mistreatment of children in her classes. After proper notification and a hearing, the school board voted three-to-two not to renew Mrs. McMahan's contract. Mrs. McMahan appealed to the Grant County Circuit Court where the trial court reversed the decision of the Leola School Board, finding that the board failed to substantially comply with the Arkansas Teacher Fair Dismissal Act by voting to nonrenew Mrs. McMahan for arbitrary, capricious and discriminatory reasons. The school board brings this appeal from that order. We affirm the trial court. Our jurisdiction is pursuant to Sup.Ct.R. 29(1)(c) as we are being asked to interpret the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act of 1979, 1 Ark.Stat.Ann. §§ 80-1264-80-1264.10 (Repl.1980).

The determination not to renew a teacher's contract is a matter within the discretion of the school board, and the reviewing court cannot substitute its opinion for that of the board in the absence of an abuse of discretion by the board. Safferstone v. Tucker, 235 Ark. 70, 357 S.W.2d 3 (1962); Chapman v. Hamburg Public Schools, 274 Ark. 391, 625 S.W.2d 477 (1981). In our judicial review of the trial court's decision, we affirm unless the court's findings were clearly erroneous. Ark.R.Civ.P. Rule 52; Moffitt v. Batesville School Dist., 278 Ark. 77, 643 S.W.2d 557 (1982); Chapman, supra. It is not our function to substitute our judgment for the circuit court's or the school board's. Moffitt, supra; Green Forest Public Schools v. Herrington, 287 Ark. 43, 696 S.W.2d 714 (1985).

Arkansas Stat.Ann. § 80-1264.9 (Repl.1980) provided:

(b) Any certified teacher who has been employed continuously by the school district [for] three (3) or more years may be terminated or the board may refuse to renew the contract of such teacher for any cause which is not arbitrary, capricious, or discriminatory, or for violating the reasonable rules and regulations promulgated by the school board.

The question before the trial court was whether the Leola School Board refused to renew the appellee's contract for reasons permitted by the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act. Moffitt, supra. A school board's action in this regard is arbitrary and capricious only if the board's decision is not supportable on any rational basis. Lee v. Big Flat Public Schools, 280 Ark. 377, 658 S.W.2d 389 (1983); Lamar School Dist. No. 39 v. Kinder, 278 Ark. 1, 642 S.W.2d 885 (1982).

The facts leading up to the board's nonrenewal of Mrs. McMahan's contract were as follows. The superintendent of the school district received some complaints from parents about Mrs. McMahan on December 13, 1981. Mrs. McMahan was not informed of these complaints at that time. On December 16, an evaluation was made of Mrs. McMahon and all of the other teachers. Mrs. McMahan was rated "satisfactory" on fifteen items, "needs improvement" on four items and "unsatisfactory" on one item. Mrs. McMahan was rated unsatisfactory in the area of rapport with parents and students. A conference was held January 4, 1982, at which time Mrs. McMahan was told by the superintendent of three complaints against her. The complaints were excessive harassment of students, remarks to students and parents asking if there were problems at home, and remarks to parents that if a student colors in black, the student has a problem. The superintendent recommended that Mrs. McMahan use tactics besides badgering students and that she refrain completely from the other activities. Mrs. McMahan submitted a report asking for further information about what she did that was considered harassment, denying that she asked her students about problems at home, and offering to quit making any comments to parents about the significance of coloring in black.

A second conference was held January 18 and the same three complaints were discussed. The superintendent wrote in his report of the conference that no positive plan for resolution of the problem had been submitted by the teacher since the first conference. Mrs. McMahan replied in writing, stating that she disagreed with the report but was willing to work with the superintendent and the board to solve the problem. She noted that she asked at both conferences for a written statement of what kind of harassment was stated in the complaints, but she has not received an explanation. Mrs. McMahan then responded to the complaints, stating that she has been as gentle as possible since the first conference so as not to harass her students, she does not question her students or talk to their parents about their home life, and she has not mentioned coloring in black again.

A third conference was held January 21 with Mrs. McMahan, the superintendent, and Mrs. Beverly Williams, the main complaining parent. There is no written record of what took place at this conference.

On February 3 the superintendent verbally informed Mrs. McMahan that there was no need for further conferences and he was leaning heavily towards recommending renewal of her contract. On February 18 the superintendent wrote a note to Mrs McMahan, which was delivered February 22, telling her no further conferences were needed and a recommendation of renewal would be presented to the school board at the April board meeting.

On March 22, Mrs. Williams complained about an incident when she came to the school to have a conference with Mrs. McMahan over a discipline sheet. Another teacher, Mrs. Dennis, was included in the conference as a witness at the request of Mrs. McMahan. Mrs. Dennis actively participated in the conference and, as a result, Mrs. Dennis's actions were the focus of Mrs. Williams's complaint. The superintendent had a conference March 25 with Mrs. Dennis, Mrs. McMahan, and Mrs. Williams. The superintendent stated Mrs. McMahan interfered with the conference and was insubordinate and so he asked her and Mrs. Williams to step out into the hall so he could talk to Mrs. Dennis alone. After they left the room, Mrs. Williams called him and he went outside to find Mrs. McMahan lying on the floor, yelling and in apparent pain. Mrs. McMahan later explained that she fainted and that the stress had given her back spasms.

Despite the March incidents, at the April 8 school board meeting the superintendent recommended Mrs. McMahan's renewal. The board did not take any action on her contract and instead asked the superintendent for more information on the March 25 conference before a decision would be made. Thereafter, the superintendent stated that he studied his information "based upon what I had recognized at the Board meeting", then withdrew his recommendation. Mrs. McMahan was properly advised that he now planned to recommend nonrenewal of her contract because of "a recurrence of the type of problem for which you have been repeatedly counseled this year, as well as in previous years." Mrs. McMahan requested a hearing before the school board on the superintendent's change of recommendation and such a hearing was held on May 18. After hearing testimony from the superintendent, Mrs. Williams, Mrs. McMahan, and witnesses for Mrs. McMahan, the school board held an executive session and voted three to two to accept the superintendent's recommendation of nonrenewal.

In finding that the school board abused its discretion, the trial court in an amended order made several findings of fact, including the following: that at the April 8 board meeting, a letter of complaint against Mrs. McMahan was read and Mrs. McMahan was not allowed to respond, even though in January she made a written request to be allowed to respond to complaints; that at its May meeting, the board denied Mrs. McMahan and her supporters the right to address the board, yet allowed complaining parties to address the board; that documents and testimony were introduced at the May 18 hearing of which Mrs. McMahan had no prior notice although she had requested this information pursuant to the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act; and that "[t]he basis of the Board's vote to nonrenew Plaintiff in 1982 was an incident that occurred in 1976 for which Plaintiff had been cleared. Two of the Board members who voted to nonrenew Plaintiff were the only two complaining parents in 1976."

The trial court held that these actions all violate the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act in that they constitute arbitrary, capricious and discriminatory reasons to nonrenew Mrs. McMahan's teaching contract.

The appellant first objects to the weight placed by the trial court on the fact that the superintendent originally recommended renewal and then, when asked by the board to provide more information, recommended nonrenewal. The appellant claims that the recommendation of the superintendent was not binding on the board and this reliance is accordingly misplaced.

Although it is true that the board was not bound to follow the superintendent's recommendation, that recommendation was used by the board as the format for the nonrenewal hearing. One of the board members stated at the outset that the procedure for the hearing would be that the superintendent would first state his recommendation and fully explain his reasons then any other persons would testify "offering evidence in support of his recommendation." Mrs. McMahan would then be permitted to respond with her own statement and with the testimony of others. Then, "[a]fter the conclusion of all the witness' statements, the Board will...

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  • Jackson v. Delta Special School Dist. No. 2
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    • August 2, 1996
    ...may result. To refuse reinstatement on that basis would allow the board to succeed in its [illegal action]. Leola Sch. Dist. v. McMahan, 289 Ark. 496, 712 S.W.2d 903, 908 (1986). The majority's attempt to distinguish this same case from the potential disruption here is simply not supported.......
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