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Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Reassignment of school principals challenged by students, resident taxpayers and employees of the school district


Reassignment of school principals challenged by students, resident taxpayers and employees of the school district
Decisions of the Commissioner of Education, Decision 16,431

In these appeals to the Commissioner of Education the petitioners challenged the school board's reassignment of school principals. As two separated appeals concerning the same issue were filed by different petitioners, the Commissioner consolidated them because they “present similar issues of fact and law.”

The petitioners in Appeal I alleged that board members acted negligently, with a wrongful purpose and not in the best interest of students, taxpayers and school staff and asked the Commissioner to overturn the board’s decision and remove certain named board members. 

The petitioners in Appeal II asked the Commissioner to order an “immediate mediation” of the parties’ dispute in order to ensure that the board’s action “was done properly.”

The school district asked the Commissioner to dismiss both appeals contending that

[1] The resolution passed following all due process requirements, in accordance with board policies and pursuant to the board’s powers under the Education Law;

[2] The board was not required to provide a rationale for the board’s decision

[3] the transfers were not made for a wrongful purpose or in willful violation or neglect of duty. And

[4] The transfers were in the best interest of the district.

The Commissioner first addressed a number of procedural issues that should be noted:

1. In Appeal II the petitioners submitted four newspaper articles to support their position. The Commissioner noted that “It is well settled that newspaper articles do not constitute evidence of the truth of the statements contained therein” and that he did not consider them “for the veracity of their content.”

2. Petitioners in both Appeal I and Appeal II seek class certification but both appeals failed to satisfy the requirements. The Commissioner explained that while petitioners, as district residents and taxpayers, have standing to maintain the appeals and application, to the extent they seek class certification, they have failed to meet the requirements as an appeal may only be maintained on behalf of a class where the class is so numerous that joinder of all members is impracticable and where all questions of fact and law are common to all members of the class. A petitioner seeking class certification must set forth the number of individuals he or she seeks to represent and must show that all questions of law and fact would be common to all members of the class. In this instance, said the Commissioner, the “pleadings are entirely devoid of any allegations addressing these criteria” and class status was denied.

3. Another critical procedural requirement regarding Appeal I was noted by the Commissioner – joining necessary parties. A party whose rights would be adversely affected by a determination of an appeal in favor of a petitioner is a necessary party and must be joined. However in Appeal I two individual’s who would be affected if petitioners prevail on the appeal are necessary parties and petitioners’ failure to join them requires dismissal of Appeal I.

As to Appeal II, the Commissioner stated that it sought an order commanding “immediate mediation” between the board and the community – conducted by a designee from the State Education Department – to ensure that the board’s action here challenged was “done properly” in accordance with state law, applicable district policies and “the best interest of” the district’s students.”

The Commissioner pointed out that an appeal to the Commissioner is appellate in nature and does not provide for investigations. Although petitioners do not explicitly request an investigation, said the Commissioner, their request for a mediation process to determine the propriety of the board’s action in light of their complaints is, in essence, a request for an investigation – relief that is not available in the context of an appeal under §310 of the Education Law.

The final issue addressed by the Commissioner: the application of the petitioners in Appeal I for the removal of school officials.

The Commissioner said that although a member of the board of education or a school officer may be removed from office pursuant to Education Law §306 when it is proven to the satisfaction of the Commissioner that the board member or school officer has engaged in a willful violation or neglect of duty under the Education Law or has willfully disobeyed a decision, order, rule or regulation of the Board of Regents or Commissioner of Education the petitioner has the burden of demonstrating a clear legal right to the relief requested and the burden of establishing the facts upon which petitioner seeks relief.

Based on the record before the Commissioner, the Commissioner ruled that the petitioners in Appeal I have failed to establish that the actions of the individual respondents in voting to transfer the two principals warrant their removal. Further, said the Commissioner, the alleged violations, even if proven, would not, on the record before him, “rise to the level of willful violation of law and neglect of duty that would constitute sufficient grounds for the removal of the individual respondents.” 

The bottom line: The Commissioner decided that on the record before him, petitioners have not met their burden of demonstrating that respondents engaged in any willful or intentional misconduct warranting their removal from office and dismissed the appeals and the application for the removal of certain school officials.
In light of this disposition, I need not consider the parties’ remaining contentions.

The decision is posted on the Internet at:
http://www.counsel.nysed.gov/Decisions/volume52/d16431.html

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