Wuest v. Winner School Dist., 21062.

CourtSupreme Court of South Dakota
Citation2000 SD 42,607 N.W.2d 912
Docket NumberNo. 21062.,21062.
PartiesLinda L. WUEST, Appellant, v. WINNER SCHOOL DISTRICT 59-2 and Its Board of Education consisting of Rocky Blare, Denice Novotny, Jim Day, Wayne Meyer, Doug Percy, Clint Vanneman, and Dan Viedt, Appellees.
Decision Date29 March 2000

George W. Wuest, Mitchell, for appellant.

Paul E. Jensen of Jensen and Massa Winner, for appellees.

Mark Barnett, Attorney General, Michele K. Bennet, Assistant Attorney General, Pierre, for intervenor State of South Dakota.

VON WALD, Circuit Judge.

[¶ 1.] Linda Wuest appeals a trial court decision affirming the Winner School Board's decision not to renew her teaching contract. We affirm.


[¶ 2.] Linda Wuest began teaching in the Winner School District (District) in 1985 and was subject to periodic evaluations pursuant to District policy. From 1985 through 1995, Linda generally received good evaluations with the exception of one done by Judy Audiss in 1993. Audiss was the principal and Linda's supervisor from 1990 to 1993. Audiss had previously given Linda positive evaluations. Following the 1993 evaluation indicating Linda was having problems, Audiss placed Linda on a plan of assistance to help her in her work.

[¶ 3.] In the 1995-96 school year, Linda was supervised and evaluated by Winner elementary principal Mary Fisher. Fisher also did Linda's evaluations for 1997-98, the evaluations at issue in this case. In October 1997, Fisher did Linda's first evaluation for that academic year. Evaluations were done using criteria contained within the District's teacher evaluation system. Fisher noted a number of deficiencies and found Linda was performing below District standards in most areas. After receiving this evaluation, Linda was on notice that she would be placed on a plan of assistance. Plans of assistance are used by school districts to help teachers who are not performing as well as they could be. They indicate the areas in which the teacher needs to improve and convey information on how to achieve the level of improvement that is expected. The ultimate goal of any plan of assistance is to help the teacher make sufficient improvements to continue to be retained by the school district.

[¶ 4.] After receiving notice of Fisher's intended plan of assistance, Linda requested a second evaluation. She also indicated she would like to have her father, acting as her counsel in this case, attend the next meeting. Linda and her father met with her superiors in October 1997 and Fisher and middle school principal, David Nicholas, were also in attendance. Linda and her father requested that Nicholas conduct an independent evaluation and Nicholas agreed. Nicholas completed his evaluation on October 31, 1997 after observing Linda on October 28. The Nicholas evaluation also found Linda failed to meet District standards.

[¶ 5.] Following the Nicholas evaluation, Linda was put on a plan of assistance. The plan, also prepared by Nicholas, noted the deficiencies in Linda's evaluations, set forth the goals to be reached, indicated the improvements she could make and noted what assistance would be available from the school administration. Further, the plan noted a number of future evaluations that would be conducted as well as the time period the plan would be in place and the standards that needed to be met by the conclusion of the plan. Also listed were the consequences for Linda if she failed to meet the standards of the plan.

[¶ 6.] Under the plan, Linda was evaluated by Fisher in December 1997. In February 1998, she was evaluated once by Nicholas and once by Audiss, the special education director and rural schools supervisor. All three evaluations found Linda was still performing below District standards. Testimony later given by the three evaluators indicated Linda failed to regularly perform her obligations as a teacher with the degree of skill expected of teachers and regularly displayed by other teachers in similar situations. Fisher and Nicholas testified that, in their professional opinions, Linda lacked the ability to discharge her obligations as a teacher in the Winner School District. The evaluators further testified Linda had demonstrated incompetence arising from a course of conduct and a series of incidents over the years.

[¶ 7.] Specific aspects of Linda's teaching that bothered the evaluators were documented. In November 1997, Fisher documented her concern about Linda's grading criteria. When Fisher asked Linda what criteria she used for grades, she replied, "criteria?" When Fisher further inquired about how Linda would grade her students her reply was, "I just sort of remember how each one is doing." Fisher continued to discuss the matter with Linda, asking her if she kept records of grades. Linda indicated she did not and would sometimes ask other teachers how the children were doing. Linda contends that Fisher and others who had evaluated her had it in for her because of a personality conflict.

[¶ 8.] In addition to Fisher's concern about Linda's grading practices, there were also complaints to the school from parents. During the 1997-98 school year Linda was a Title I teacher and was supposed to assist students who needed remedial help in math and reading. She consistently worked with three or four students at a time and occasionally worked with an entire classroom. Parents complained about their children not being helped in class and expressed concerns that the children were actually becoming more confused. There were also written complaints from parents who felt Linda should be dismissed. Five sets of parents requested that their children be removed from Linda's program. Three of these families worked out agreements with the school while two actually did remove their children from Linda's classroom.

[¶ 9.] On March 9, 1998, the Winner School Board (Board) adopted the recommendation of the administration and voted not to renew Linda's teaching contract at the conclusion of the 1997-98 school year. The Board took this action immediately after an executive session that included the school administration. Although Linda and her counsel also asked to be included in the session, their request was denied. On March 10, 1998, a notice of non-renewal was served on Linda pursuant to SDCL 13-43-6.2. Linda then requested a hearing before the Board. After making her request, Linda appealed to circuit court and obtained an injunction to stop the Board from holding a hearing. Following a hearing in circuit court, the court dissolved the injunction and permitted the Board to continue with a hearing.

[¶ 10.] The hearing was held before the Board on April 8 and 9, 1998. Evidence was heard from Linda, who was represented by counsel, and from the administration of the District. After hearing all the evidence, the Board deliberated and voted not to renew Linda's contract.

[¶ 11.] Linda appealed the Board's decision to circuit court. The circuit court held a trial on December 14, 1998 and later issued findings of fact and conclusions of law affirming the decision of the Board. Linda then filed this appeal.


[¶ 12.] This Court recently reiterated the standard under which we must decide an appeal such as this:

A proceeding in circuit court on an appeal pursuant to SDCL 13-46-1 is a trial de novo. On appeal to the circuit court, the court may determine the legality of that decision. Strain v. Rapid City School Bd., 447 N.W.2d 332, 338 (S.D. 1989). However, great deference is given to the good faith determinations of school boards on decisions of whether to renew a teacher's contract. Jager v. Ramona Bd. of Educ., 444 N.W.2d 21, 25 (S.D.1989). The appeal to the circuit court is not a trial de novo in the true sense of the phrase, as 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. Riter v. Woonsocket School Dist. No. 55-4, 504 N.W.2d 572, 574 (S.D.1993). The determination of legality is a two-pronged process: (1) whether the School Board acted legally, and (2) whether the School Board's decision was arbitrary, capricious or an abuse of discretion. Id. On appeal to this Court, we review facts under the clearly erroneous standard, however, questions of law are reviewed de novo. Aman v. Edmunds Cent. Sch. Dist., 494 N.W.2d 198, 199 (S.D.1992).

Hughes v. Stanley County School Bd., 1999 SD 65, ¶ 15, 594 N.W.2d 346, 351.


[¶ 13.] Linda raises thirteen issues. Both the Board's brief and the brief submitted by the state narrow the issues down to three or four. This Court will analyze the case under the two-prong test outlined above and will also resolve an issue over the Board's subject matter jurisdiction. All relevant issues can be disposed of through a discussion of the two-step analysis. The other issues submitted by Linda are without merit and will not be discussed.


[¶ 14.] Did the Board have subject matter jurisdiction?

[¶ 15.] Questions over subject matter jurisdiction have no time limitation and may even be raised for the first time on appeal. State ex rel. Freeman v. Sadlier, 1998 SD 114, ¶ 10, 586 N.W.2d 171, 174; Matter of MAC, 512 N.W.2d 152, 154 (S.D. 1994). This issue must be discussed first for if it is found that the Board had no jurisdiction all other issues are moot.

[¶ 16.] The Board held its regular meeting on March 9, 1998. During an executive session, several administrators recommended that Linda's contract not be renewed for the 1998-99 academic year. The following day Linda was served with notice pursuant to SDCL 13-43-6.2 and 13-43-6.3 that her contract would not be renewed. The required notice also informed her she had a right to a hearing in front of the school board. Linda requested a hearing, but appealed to the circuit court before the hearing was held and obtained an ex parte...

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