Discipline or constructive criticism?
Source: E-mail received by NYPPL referencing an item posted on the Internet at http://auburnpub.com/news/local/article_0a5c06e8-5a78-11e0-95ff-001cc4c03286.html
Suspended Jordan-Elbridge School District principal David Zehner and his attorneys, citing the Education Law and the Public Officer Law, contend that Zehner cannot be “reprimanded” until a hearing officer is selected to hear any charges filed against him pursuant to §3020-a of the Education Law and he is found guilty of those charges.
Zehner considered three actions by the Board to constitute reprimands, or punishments, in the nature of disciplinary actions taken against him and petitioned Supreme Court for an order directing the board "to cease disciplining him until it appoints an arbitrator to conduct a hearing on his 3020-a charges."
The school district, on the other hand, contends that it had not reprimanded Zehner but had merely informed him that he had violated board policy by acting inappropriately at meetings. The school district’s attorney, Frank Miller, Esq., said. “This isn’t a letter of reprimand. ... We have a right to say to one of our employees, ’you’re acting up; we’re going to correct you.’”
Distinguishing between “constructive criticism” and a reprimand in the context of a disciplinary action has been addressed in The Discipline Book [http://thedisciplinebook.blogspot.com/ ] as follows:
"In Holt v Board of Education, 52 NY2d 625, the Court of Appeals ruled that performance evaluations and letters of criticism placed in the employee’s personnel file were not “disciplinary penalties” and thus could be placed there without having to first hold a disciplinary proceeding. In other words, the appointing authority’s placing correspondence critical of the employee’s conduct or performance in his or her personnel file did not constitute discipline.
"The basic rule set out in Holt is that a statutory disciplinary provision such as Section 75 of the Civil Service Law does not require that an employee be given a hearing or permitted to grieve every comment or statement by his or her employer that he or she may consider a criticism.
"In contrast, alleged “constructive criticism” may not be used to frustrate an employee’s right to due process as set out in Section 75 of the Civil Service Law, Section 3020-a of the Education Law or a contract disciplinary procedure.
"As the Commissioner of Education indicated in Fusco v Jefferson County School District, CEd, 14,396, decided June 27, 2000, and Irving v Troy City School District, CEd 14,373, decided May 25, 2000, 'Comments critical of employee performance do not, without more, constitute disciplinary action. On the other hand, counseling letters may not be used as a subterfuge for avoiding initiating formal disciplinary action against a tenured individual.'"
"What distinguishes lawful “constructive criticism” of an individual’s performance by a supervisor and supervisory actions addressing an individual’s performance that are disciplinary in nature?
"This could be a difficult question to resolve. As the Court of Appeals indicated in Holt, a “counseling memorandum” that is given to an employee and placed in his or her personnel file constitutes a lawful means of instructing the employee concerning unacceptable performance and the actions that should be taken by the individual to improve his or her work.
"In the Fusco and Irving cases the Commissioner of Education found that 'critical comment' exceeded the parameters circumscribing 'lawful instruction' concerning unacceptable performance.
"In Fusco’s case, the Commissioner said that “contents of the memorandum” did not fall within the parameters of a “permissible evaluation” despite the school board’s claim that the memorandum was 'intended to encourage positive change' in Fusco’s performance. The Commissioner noted that the memorandum 'contains no constructive criticism or a single suggestion for improvement.' Rather, said the Commissioner, the memorandum focused on 'castigating [Fusco] for prior alleged misconduct.'"
"In Irving’s case, a school principal was given a letter critical of her performance and the next day reassigned to another school where she was to serve as an assistant principal. The Commissioner ruled that these two actions, when considered as a single event, constituted disciplinary action within the meaning of Section 3020-a of the Education Law." .
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