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School Board Must Conduct Requested Meeting With Principal Before Voting to Renew or Not Renew Employment Contract

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2011-0716.  State ex rel. Carna v. Teays Valley Local School Dist. Bd. of Edn., Slip Opinion No. 2012-Ohio-1484.
Pickaway App. No. 10CA18, 2011-Ohio-1522. Judgment reversed and cause remanded.
O'Connor, C.J., and Pfeifer, Lundberg Stratton, O'Donnell, Lanzinger, Cupp, and McGee Brown, JJ., concur.
Opinion: http://www.supremecourt.ohio.gov/rod/docs/pdf/0/2012/2012-Ohio-1484.pdf

Video clip View oral argument video of this case.

(April 4, 2012) The Supreme Court of Ohio ruled today that the failure of the Teays Valley Local School Board to grant the request of a grade school principal for a meeting with the board  prior to the board’s vote not to renew her contract was a violation of state law that invalidates the board’s vote not to renew the principal’s contract and requires her reemployment.

The court’s 7-0 decision, authored by Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor, reversed a ruling by the Fourth District Court of Appeals.

Stacey Carna entered into a two-year contract with the Teays Valley Local School District to serve as principal of Ashville Elementary School for the 2006-2007 and 2007-2008 school years. In May 2007, Carna was placed on paid administrative leave for the remaining term of her contract based on school employees’ allegations that she had tampered with Ohio Achievement Test answer sheets that had been completed by students at the school. In June or July 2007, Carna was orally advised by an assistant district superintendent, Robert Thompson, that her contract would not be renewed when it expired in the summer of 2008. At the time of that notification, Carna orally informed Thompson that she wanted to meet with the district school board prior to any final board action on the nonrenewal of her contract.

Despite Carna’s request, at a regularly scheduled school board meeting on March 17, 2008, without advance notice to Carna that her contact would be considered at that meeting and without a prior meeting with her to discuss its reasons for nonrenewal, the board voted not to renew Carna’s contract.

In November 2008, following an administrative hearing, the Ohio Department of Education found no basis for the allegations of test tampering.  The evidence presented did not demonstrate that any tests were altered, yet alone that  Carna had made any changes to answer sheets or acted improperly. The Department of Education took no action against Carna’s professional licenses.

Carna subsequently filed suit against the school district in the Pickaway County Court of Common Pleas. Among other claims, Carna asked the court to issue a writ of mandamus compelling the district to reinstate her in her former position with back pay based on the district’s failure to comply with her request for a meeting with the school board prior to its vote denying renewal of her contract.
In support of her argument, she relied on R.C. 3319.02(D)(4), which requires that, before a school board takes action to renew or non-renew the contract of a public school administrator, if the administrator requests a meeting with the board, the board “shall grant a meeting in executive session,” at which the board “shall discuss its reasons for considering renewal or nonrenewal of the contract.”  R.C. 3319.02(D)(5) provides that if a school board “fails to provide at the request of the employee a meeting as prescribed in division D(4) of this section, the employee automatically shall be reemployed ...”

The trial court disagreed with Carna, and granted summary judgment in favor of the school board, holding that Carna’s July 2007 oral request for a meeting had been made prematurely, before the district had performed legally required evaluations of Carna’s work performance during the second year of her contract period, and therefore was not a valid “request” pursuant to R.C. 3319.02(D)(4) that would trigger the automatic reinstatement requirement of R.C. 3319.02(D)(5).

Carna appealed.  On review, the Fourth  District Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s decision.  The court of appeals held that under the statutory scheme, an administrator’s right to request a meeting with the school board arises only after preliminary and final evaluations have been performed in the year that the administrator’s contract expires, and the administrator has received a formal notice that the superintendent will recommend renewal or non-renewal.

Carna sought and was granted Supreme Court review of the Fourth  District’s decision.

In today’s unanimous decision reversing the Fourth District, Chief Justice O’Connor wrote: “The court of appeals held that Carna’s oral request on July 11, 2007, for a meeting with the board did not constitute a proper request under the statute because the request must occur at a time reasonably related to the board’s impending decision. ... Thus, although Thompson gave Carna oral notice on July 11, 2007, that her contract would not be renewed, and although Carna immediately asked Thompson for a meeting with the board per R.C. 3319.02(D)(4), the appellate court held that the statute required Carna to request a meeting with the board after receiving the two written administrative evaluations that renotified her that her contract would not be renewed.”

“Contrary to the appellate court’s conclusion, nothing in the language of the statute, which clearly contemplates the context of contract renewal, requires that the request for a meeting occur after the board makes a final evaluation and informs the administrator that the contract will not be renewed, and after the board gives the administrator notice of her right to request a hearing. Rather, R.C. 3319.02(D)(4) plainly and simply states that notice must be given ‘[b]efore taking action to renew or nonrenew the contract.’ There is no temporal restriction that requires the request for a meeting to occur at any given time, and no proper basis from which to conclude that the request for a meeting may not be made until after final evaluation.  Had the General Assembly intended for the request for a meeting to be dependent on any temporal specificity, it would have included that specificity in the statute itself, as it did in other sections of this statute.”

“The appellate court improperly included words in the statute that were not there and ignored words that were there.
...  The statutory language of R.C. 3319.02(D) required only that Carna request the meeting, not that she do so after a final evaluation and after the board notified her of her statutory right to the meeting.  Indeed, it is undisputed here that the board never gave Carna notice of her rights under R.C. 3319.02. Thus, using the appellate court’s reasoning, even today—four years after first being informed that her contract would not be renewed—Carna still would be unable to request the meeting.  The General Assembly certainly did not intend for such an absurd result.”

“R.C. 3319.02(D) sets forth the procedural protections available to school administrators during the decision-making process on the nonrenewal of their employment contracts with boards of education.  Carna presented evidence that she requested those protections but that her request was not honored by the board. The General Assembly has determined that if the administrator requests that such a meeting be held, the board must hold it in executive session to discuss the renewal or nonrenewal of the contract. There is no legislative command that the request for a meeting occur after administrative evaluations are complete.  Thus, we must reverse the judgment of the court of appeals and vacate the summary judgment against Carna. We remand this cause to the common pleas court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.”

Frederick M. Gittes, 614.222.4735, for Stacey L. Carna.

Richard A. Williams, 614.224.0531, for the Teays Valley Local School Board.