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Back to School–Matters of Principle and Principal

“Knowledge never learned at school” –John Greenleaf Whittier, The Barefoot Boy (1856)

About 78 million students are flocking back to their buildings and classes for the 2015-16 school year, along with educators and administrative personnel.  These figures, constituting nearly 25 percent of the country, include more than 840,000 pupils in elementary, middle, and high schools in Minnesota, plus some 40,000 in charter schools and 18,000 home schooled as well, including on-line and universities along with thousands more in private and parochial educational institutions, making the state the 18th largest number of enrolled students.

As they resume their spots in the academic world, students and staff are recovering from, or in some cases relishing, a number of rulings this summer by the Minnesota Court of Appeals addressing education-related law issues.  Most of them were setbacks for the claimants, but one highlight was a favorable decision for a student who sued on principle and won, while a high school principal, who sued over loss of her job, did not.

The other cases consisted of two setbacks by non-licensed personnel in claims for disability discrimination and unemployment compensation benefits, respectively.  But students split a pair of cases securing unemployment benefits.

Principle Prevails

A high school student from Wells in southern Minnesota prevailed in her challenge to a short term expulsion from school for concealing a 3-inch hunting knife in the building in In reExpulsion of A.D.2015 Minn. App. LEXIS 639 (Minn. Ct. App. July 20, 2015).  The student had used the knife while baling hay on a friend’s family farm over a spring weekend, put it in her purse and forgot it when she went to school the following Monday.  A random search detected the item and led the principal to suspend her for three days, which was extended by the school board to expulsion for the remaining six weeks of the 2013-14 school term, and confirmed by the Minnesota Department of Education on grounds that the student violated the school’s “zero tolerance” anti-weapons policy.  As a result, the student, a junior at the United South Central High School missed that school year.  But she did return, completed her senior year in 2014-15, and graduated, headed to college at the University of Minnesota State Mankato.

The student, through her father, brought a certiorari suit under the Pupil Fair Dismissal Act, Minn. Stat. § 121A.40, which provides procedural safeguards for student expulsion within the public school system.  The appellate court reversed, rectifying her record by overturning the expulsion.

The court cut the student some slack for having the knife because the student did not transgress the policy, which bars possessing contraband, because she did not know it was in her purse.  Further, the school did not allow her to utilize the “safe harbor” provision of its policy by permitting her to turn in the knife after it was found.  Accordingly, the expulsion was reversed and the student’s record was cleared of the discipline.

Her father deemed the victory a “matter of principle” for students throughout the state, while observers noted that the ruling could be used as a precedent for employees contesting disciplinary action taken against them due to violation of workplace policies proscribing weapons on premises.

Principal Performance

While the expelled student’s triumph was deemed a victory for principle, a principal in St. Louis Park did not fare as well.  She lost her certiorari challenge to the non-renewal of her position due to poor performance in her first year at St. Louis Park High School, The school board refused to bring her back for the following school year in a decision that the principal unsuccessfully challenged before the Court of Appeals in Karetov v. Ind. Sch. Dist. #283, 2015 Minn. App. LEXIS 559 (Minn. Ct. App. June, 2015) (unpublished).

The principal was covered by a new Minnesota law requiring at least a one year probationary period under Minn. Stat. § 122A.40, subd. 5(a), along with another requiring school districts to adopt an evaluation process for principals, pursuant to Minn. Stat. § 123B.147, subd. 3.  The St. Louis Park School District did so, requiring a formal evaluation within the first 90 days.  The school superintendent conducted several evaluations, identified performance problems, and negatively evaluated the principal, leading to her non-renewal.  The principal sued, claiming that the school district violated the 90-day evaluation requirement because no evaluation occurred during her first three months on the job, and the later evaluations  did not comport with the prescribed evaluation forms.

The court rejected her claim, holding that the district did substantially comply with statutory requirements.  Expressing reluctance to intervene in school district decision-making, it felt that the overall process was sufficient to identify performance problems and warranted termination of the principal’s employment.

Staff Situations

Staff employees at two public schools in the Twin Cities metropolitan area also lost a pair of claims involving different types of workplace situations this summer shortly after the St. Lois Park principal’s setback.  InFischer v. Minneapolis Public Schools,2015 U.S. App. LEXIS 11727 (8th Cir. July 8, 2015) (unpublished).  A janitor in the Minneapolis Public School System was not allowed to return to work after a recall from layoff because he was unable to pass a moderate weightlifting test, which the district deemed “essential” to his work.  His claims for disability discrimination under the Federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Minnesota State Human Rights counterpart as well as retaliation were rejected by U.S. District Court Judge David Doty in Minneapolis, and the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed.

The janitor’s claim that the school district regarded  him as disabled, thereby seeking to invoke the so-called perception of disability provision of the ADA, lacked merit because the school did not have a belief that he suffered a physical impairment to warrant coverage under federal or state laws.

An adult supervisor of student school safety crossing guards in south Washington County was denied unemployment compensation benefits after she was fired for belligerent  behavior in Lee v. Sch. Dist. No. 833, 2015 Minn. App. LEXIS 621 (Minn. Ct. App. July 13, 2015) (unpublished).

The Minnesota Court of Appeals affirmed a determination by the Department of Employment & Economic Development (DEED), which oversees unemployment compensation in Minnesota.  It regarded her tirades to students on at least two occasions, as well as her repeated late arrivals at work, as disqualifying “misconduct” under Minn. Stat. § 268.085, subd. 1(4).

Unemployment Undertakings

A pair of undertakings for unemployment benefits by students reached opposite results.

A student prevailed inDavidsavor v. DEED, 2015 Minn. App. LEXIS 876 (Minn. August 31, 2015).  An adverse ruling by the Department of Employment & Economic Development (DEED), which oversees the unemployment compensation process in Minnesota, was overturned by the Court of Appeals because there was no evidence that the student would not have quit school to be “available” for a job, as required by Minn. Stat. §268.085, subd. 1(4).  The denial of benefits was erroneous because the record did not reflect that the student declined any job offer because a prospective employer was unwilling to accommodate her regularly-scheduled classes on one afternoon and evening per week.  Further, the statute allows benefits if the student is able to change the class schedule or make other arrangements to be excused from class for work.

But another student lost her bid for unemployment compensation benefits due to limiting her job search to a part-time position in order to accommodate her class schedule in Marcellais v. Prairie Harvest Mental Health, 2015 Minn. App. LEXIS 653 (Minn. Ct. App. July 20, 2015) (unpublished).   DEED determined that the claimant was ineligible for benefits because she was not “available for [and] seeking … suitable employment,” as statutorily required.

The appellate court affirmed, holding that her desire to pursue her schooling and search only for part time jobs failed to satisfy the statutory requirements for eligibility, rendering her ineligible for benefits.

Transfer Tussle

Shortly after these Minnesota appellate court decisions were issued, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals weighed in at the end of August with a back-to-school decision, holding in Stevenson v. Blytheville South District #5, 2015 U.S. App. LEXIS 15328 (8th Cir. August 31, 2015) that students in Arkansas must stay in their assigned schools.

The tussle concerned an effort by a group of white parents to allow their children to transfer from a struggling public school district, which was predominantly African-American, to more affluent neighboring districts that they felt offered better educational opportunities.  The trial court denied their Due Process and Equal Protection claims under the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution on grounds that the district was still subject to a desegregation order from the 1970’s.

The Eighth Circuit affirmed, holding that the desire of the parents to choose where to have their children educated within the public school system is not “a fundamental right or liberty.”  Further, the dispute was moot because it only applied to the prior school year.

Supreme Suit

While the decisions in these cases will affect  students, educators, and administrative staff in Minnesota, a major suit pending before the U.S. Supreme Court, which will be decided during the upcoming 2015-16 Term, could have wide-ranging impact on teachers, school management, as well as other employers and employees throughout the public sector.

The high court in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, No. 14-915 has agreed to hear a challenge by a group of California teachers of the state’s “agency shop” law, which requires all teachers to belong to unions and pay dues for collective bargaining purposes.  Similar laws exist in about two dozen other states, including here in Minnesota. The teachers, who have lost in proceedings before two lower courts, maintain that requiring them to pay dues constitutes a violation of their First Amendment rights of freedom of expression and freedom of association.  The challengers are asking the justices to override their nearly 40-year old precedent in Abood v.Detroit Board of Education, 431 U.S. 209 (1977), that allows agency shop arrangements, provided that union members are permitted to opt-out of the portion of their dues used for prohibited or ideological purposes.

The high court has shown an inclination to accept these arguments in another context in Harris v. Quinn,134 S. Ct. 2618 (2014) (state paid home health care aides).  A number of observers feel that at least four solid votes exist on the high court in favor of the teachers’ position and Justice Anthony Kennedy, as usual, may provide the swing vote needed to overturn the agency shop requirement. That could impact public sector employees in education and other fields, as well, including those others covered by the Minnesota Public Employee’s Labor Relations Act (PELRA), Minn. Stat. § 179.01 et seq., which governs management-labor relations in public sector employees in this state.

As participants ramp up for the 2015-16 school year, they have much to mull over concerning recent litigation affecting their rights, remedies and responsibilities.

*Originally published in Minnesota Lawyer.