State ex rel. Newton v. Board of School Trustees of Metropolitan School Dist. of Wabash County

Decision Date07 March 1984
Docket NumberNo. 4-882A248,4-882A248
Citation460 N.E.2d 533
Parties16 Ed. Law Rep. 592 STATE of Indiana on the Relation of Earl NEWTON, Jr., Plaintiff-Appellant, v. BOARD OF SCHOOL TRUSTEES OF the METROPOLITAN SCHOOL DISTRICT OF WABASH COUNTY, Defendant-Appellee.
CourtIndiana Appellate Court

Richard J. Darko, Thomas M. Hinshaw, Bayh, Tabbert & Capehart, Indianapolis, Richard K. Helm, Rockhill Kennedy Pinnick Bent & Pequignot, Warsaw, for plaintiff-appellant.

Charles R. Tiede, Plummer, Tiede, Magley, Metz & Downs, Wabash, for defendant-appellee.

GARRARD, Judge.

In 1975 Earl Newton, Jr. was a sixth grade teacher at La Fontaine Elementary School in Wabash County. Newton began teaching for the Wabash County school system in 1963. In 1968 he received tenure. In mid-April of 1975 Newton received a letter from Laurence Wade, who was then the superintendent of the metropolitan school district of Wabash County. The letter informed Newton that Wade had determined "upon recommendation of staff, to recommend to the Board of Education the cancellation of your contract as a teacher ... effective on May 29, 1975 at the close of the school day."

Newton responded with a letter to Richard Early. Early was at that time the president of the board of education of the Wabash County school district (hereinafter, "School Board"). Newton's letter requested that he be "given in writing the reasons ... for dismissal." Newton asked that the reasons be specific and be described in detail sufficient to permit a "fair appraisal" and rebuttal. Newton also indicated he desired a hearing at which he might present evidence on his behalf and challenge the allegations serving as the predicate for dismissal. On May 2, 1975 Wade wrote Newton that his contract was being cancelled for "insubordination, neglect of duty [and] undermining public confidence in the normal education process by refusing to follow established procedures." Wade advised Newton that a hearing on his dismissal would be held, and commented that "[c]opies of any item in your file will be made available to you upon your request to assist you in preparation for the hearing." On May 5, 1975 Newton wrote Wade that he found "the reasons for the cancellation of my indefinite contract ... too vague to enable me to prepare a defense." Newton asked Wade for "a bill of particulars stating the exact incident, behavior or action which led to each of the three charges." Wade did not reply.

Newton's hearing was held May 19, 1975. The members of the School Board present were Richard A. Early, Joseph W. Cooper, Darle V. Dawes, Claude A. Brane and C. Robert Elrod. Wade attended with his assistant superintendent, Edward Kasamis. Newton was represented by Jules Walker and by Karen Wallace, an employee of the Indiana State Teachers Association. Charles Tiede, counsel for the school corporation, presided. Kasamis "prosecuted" and Wallace presented Newton's case.

Four witnesses testified in favor of Newton's termination: Don Hammel, Newton's former principal, George Price, Newton's principal in 1975, and two parents, Patricia Rigsbee and Dixie Mercer. Hammel was Hammel was followed by George Price, who was Newton's principal for the 1974-1975 academic year. Price described four areas in which he considered Newton's performance to have been deficient. The first area involved student reports: Price explained that the school system had begun a nine-weeks grading schedule the previous fall. At the end of each nine-week period parent conferences were to be arranged to discuss the children's progress. Teachers were instructed to send an "interim checklist report" home with their students five weeks into the grading period. The reports were to alert parents to problems which might require a conference. The reports were to go out on October 3 and again on February 19. Newton's reports did not go out until October 8 and February 21. Price spoke to Newton on each occasion, but received no explanation for the delay.

Newton's principal and supervisor from 1964 to 1967. Hammel recounted an incident in which Newton had called upon him to administer corporal punishment to several students. The parents of the students had complained about the punishment. Hammel also testified that on one occasion, in 1967, Newton was away from his duty station without permission. Yet it was Hammel who, in 1968, recommended Newton for tenure.

Price also testified that Newton was late in arriving for work. Price said that Newton was late on seventeen occasions during the 1974-1975 academic year. Newton testified that the school had inaugurated a new check-in system, the "red card" system, and his apparent tardiness was a function of his occasionally forgetting to hang up the red card indicating arrival. Price admitted that Newton had never been late for the beginning of classes. Price's third area of concern was Newton's administering corporal punishment. On November 5, 1974 Newton paddled three of his students. Another teacher observed the paddling. There was a long-standing School Board policy that corporal punishment could be inflicted "only when adult witnesses are present." Newton considered his colleague to be such a witness. Price did not. Upon his arrival at La Fontaine three years earlier he had announced that "we [have] a rule ... that ... you have a witness and in this particular building I'm the witness." Price considered Newton's disregard of his preference an act of insubordination.

Newton's final defect, as described by Price, was in the classroom. According to Price, he began receiving complaints about Newton's classroom performance in October of 1974. Eventually he was confronted with fourteen complaining parents from "about nine different families." The complaints centered around similar issues: Newton was described as unapproachable, either by students or parents. Some parents complained that he alluded to their children as being "dumb" or "stupid" in class. There were complaints that Newton had "poked" or "pounded" students' heads with his pencil. Parents alleged that he refused to allow them to see their children's records. Finally, Price testified that parents complained that Newton's instruction was incomprehensible, so that students were unclear as to what was required of them. Price also indicated that the majority of the complaints about Newton came early in the fall term, before Newton's first series of parent conferences. Price admitted that the complaints could have been a function of Newton's teaching philosophy. In his testimony, Newton described himself as teaching an "individualized" curriculum, encouraging each child to work at his or her own level. Newton said Price had approved his approach. Price agreed that Newton's was an individualized curriculum rather different from that of the other teachers at the school. However, Price did not feel that Newton's curriculum was "that much different from" that of his colleagues. Nor did Price consider Newton's curriculum the sole source of parental complaints.

Patricia Rigsbee and Dixie Mercer, mothers of children who had been in Newton's class, testified and essentially confirmed Price's allegations regarding Newton. Seventeen other parents of children in In addition to presenting testimony, both sides introduced a number of exhibits. The exhibits included the earlier described correspondence between Newton and Wade, as well as Price's notes on Newton's performance through the year. Newton's evaluations as a teacher were also included.

                Newton's class testified on his behalf.  Newton testified, among other things, that he had no idea Price was dissatisfied with his work until he received Wade's letter telling him that he was to be dismissed.  Newton considered that he "got along with [Price] very well."   Newton was not aware of the number of parental complaints about his teaching.  Nor was he aware that Price had discussed his work with Wade.  Newton denied that he had ever characterized his students, or their work, as "dumb."
                

At the end of the hearing the School Board resolved to announce its determination on May 27, 1975. At that meeting Joseph W. Cooper moved to accept the staff recommendation and to cancel Newton's continuing contract. After Cooper's motion was seconded Jules Walker spoke on Newton's behalf. Walker presented a petition in favor of Newton's retention. The Board took the petition under advisement. Other parents spoke on Newton's behalf. After all those desiring to be heard had concluded, the Board voted. C. Robert Elrod was not present. The other four members of the School Board voted to cancel Newton's contract with the school corporation.

On November 12, 1975 Newton filed a complaint in the Wabash Circuit Court seeking reinstatement. The cause was later transferred to the Kosciusko Superior Court, with The Honorable Marvin McLaughlin presiding as special judge. The parties filed pre-trial briefs, and trial was held on July 11, 1977. The transcript of the School Board's hearing was admitted into evidence. There was additional testimony by Newton, Wallace, Wade, Kasamis and three members of the School Board, Dawes, Cooper and Brane. The court took the matter under advisement. On March 8, 1978 the court entered judgment for the School Board. Judge McLaughlin's brief entry included the observations that "procedurally, the Board has more than complied with the statute. 1 The plaintiff, Newton Newton appealed. On May 14, 1980 we reversed the trial court's decision. State ex rel. Newton v. Board of School Trustees of the Metropolitan School District of Wabash Co. (1980), Ind.App., 404 N.E.2d 47. We based our reversal upon a single issue, the inadequacy of the findings made by the School Board:

knew all of the Board's evidence before the date of the Board hearing."

"The only finding made ... was that the reasons given by the staff recommending cancellation of the contract had been proven."

On September 5, 1980...

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