The Indiana Supreme Court ruled in a closely watched case, Jeffrey Hewitt v. Westfield Washington School Corporation, et al., ___ N.E.3d ___ (Ind. Dec. 15, 2015), that addressed what procedures schools must follow to terminate an administrator’s contract. While the Supreme Court ruled that the statutory contract cancellation rights afforded teachers do not automatically apply to administrators who face termination of their administrator’s contract only, the Court’s decision, unfortunately, does not clearly define what procedures must be followed by school corporations. Those procedures, the Court said, is a case-by-case determination. In other words, with a different set of facts, a different procedure may be required. In the Hewitt case the conduct of the administrator was not at issue because the administrator admitted to the behavior.
Hewitt was an elementary school principal under a regular teacher’s contract with the school corporation when it was alleged that he was engaged in a sexual relationship with a subordinate, a teacher. The school corporation requested and obtained his resignation, but the effective date of the resignation was far later than the school corporation wanted. Unable to agree to an earlier effective date, the school corporation proceeded with termination of the principal’s administrator contract. Hewitt was given a private conference with the superintendent and a private conference with the school board. The school corporation denied his request for a full evidentiary conference with the school board because, the school corporation explained, it was not terminating his underlying teacher’s contract. After the school board unanimously terminated his administrator’s contract, Hewitt filed suit alleging that the school corporation violated his contractal and due process rights in failing to provide an evidentiary conference.
In reversing the Court of Appeals, the Supreme Court ruled that the contract cancellation procedures in I.C. § 20-28-7.5 et. seq applicable to a teacher’s contract do not apply where the administrator’s contract is being cancelled but the teacher’s contract remains intact. The Court pointed to both statutory and contractual language that distinguished between principals and teachers with respect to processes governing termination of employment. The Court also concluded that Hewitt’s due process rights were satisfied under the facts of the case because (1) the Court could not find any value to the process from cross-examination since Hewitt admitted to the conduct, (2) Hewitt did not avail himself of the opportunity to summarize what witnesses would have said in his defense, (3) the Court could not identify how other procedures would have benefited the process, (4) Hewitt received notice of the basis of his termination when the school corporation informed him that “your conduct impacts your ability to be an administrator,” and (5) Hewitt offered no evidence of bias on the part of the school board.
However, several important questions are unanswered by Hewitt. Indiana courts have long held that a school corporation that transfers a principal to a teaching position without providing statutory notice violates the principal’s contractual rights. Murray v. Monroe-Gregg Sch. Dist., 585 N.E.2d 687, 690 (Ind. Ct. App. 1992). The Court’s decision in Hewitt appears to erode the principal’s protections recognized in Murray even though Murray is not explicitly addressed in Hewitt.
Hewitt also does not clearly define what process school corporations must follow for termination of an administrator’s contract (when the teacher’s contract is untouched). Instead, the Court held that such determinations are fact-sensitive. In this case, the Court relied heavily on the fact that the principal admitted to the allegations, but it is not clear what is required in the event that the administrator denies the allegations or identifies benefits flowing from procedural protections typically accompanying full evidentiary hearings.
Furthermore, Hewitt does not offer clarity as to what compensation a former administrator is entitled to receive once their administrator’s contract is terminated but their teacher’s contract remains. Nor does Hewitt explain who may set the former administrator’s compensation.
Bose McKinney & Evans LLP’s Suggestions
- If an administrator’s actions warrant contract cancellation of the teacher’s contract in addition to the administrator’s contract, a school corporation should consider terminating both contracts.
- School corporations should be mindful of the requirements required under Murray v. Monroe-Gregg Sch. Dist. as it pertains to transferring of principals to other positions.
- The procedures a school corporation must use in terminating an administrator’s contract are determined on a sliding scale that is fact sensitive. The safest approach is to apply the teacher’s contract cancellation procedures when the administrator, especially when the administrator is contesting the allegations that serve as the basis for the contract termination.
- Administrator contracts should be prepared with Hewitt in mind, especially with respect to compensation.
- Stay tuned for additional guidance as lower courts apply Hewitt in the future.
The Education Group at Bose McKinney & Evans can help ensure your district is informed and ready to manage any labor and employment issue that may arise, and we will keep you posted on any developments. Please contact Chuck Rubright, Jon Mayes, Jim Hamilton or Ahmed Young with any questions or concerns.