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Not All Teacher Contracts Are Equal: Municipal School Districts’ Boards of Education Granted More Autonomy Than Their Non-Municipal Counterparts

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By Aaren Host

June 26, 2019

An Ohio appellate court recently found limited-contract teachers employed by a municipal school district are not entitled to a full evidentiary hearing under R.C. 3311.81.

In Burnell v. Cleveland Mun. School Dist. Bd. of Edn., 2018-Ohio-4609, 114 N.E.3d 1274 (8th Dist.), 12 teachers formerly employed by the Cleveland Municipal School District on a limited contract basis alleged that they did not receive an adequate hearing after they were informed by the school board that their contracts would not be renewed.  The crux of the dismissed teachers’ claims rested upon R.C. 3311.81, passed by the Ohio Legislature as part of sweeping reforms aimed at remedying issues facing the Cleveland Municipal School District specifically.  

Revised Code 3311.81 created new procedures for teachers with limited contracts, including providing them with the right to a hearing if a school board declined to renew their contract. R.C. 3311.81(C). The dismissed teachers argued that R.C. 3311.81(C) afforded them an opportunity to present evidence, examine witnesses, and review the argument of the parties. Essentially, they asked the court to interpret the term hearing to broadly mean an evidentiary hearing.

In rejecting this definition of the word “hearing,” the Court held that R.C. 3311.81 and its hearing provision is “appellate in nature” and does not require an additional evidentiary hearing during the nonrenewal process. The Court refused to read R.C. 3311.81 to provide for such because the purpose behind the statute was to “streamline employment decisions and give the Board more autonomy,” even when construing the statute liberally in the teachers’ favor as required by R.C. 1.11. Id. at ¶ 29.

In so holding, the Eighth District rejected the Ohio Supreme Court’s reading of the term “hearing” in another statute, R.C. 3319.11(G)(5), which applies to the non-renewal process for limited contract teachers outside a municipal school district. Although the Supreme Court held that a non-municipal limited contract teacher was entitled to a hearing where he or she could present evidence, call witnesses, and review the arguments of the parties, this interpretation did not apply to R.C. 3311.81 and teachers in municipal school districts. See Naylor v. Cardinal Local School Dist. Bd. of Edn., 69 Ohio St.3d 162, 1994-Ohio-22, 630 N.E.2d 725 (1994). Because R.C. 3311.81 and its counterparts were created solely for municipal school districts, the Ohio Supreme Court’s interpretation of a separate, albeit similar, statute was not binding.

Instead, in enacting R.C. Chapter 3311, the legislature intended that the municipal school district and the teachers’ union bargain over the due process procedure. The Cleveland Municipal School District did so, entering into an agreement where limited contract teachers had two opportunities prior to their R.C. 3311.81 hearing to present evidence that would justify the renewal of their contracts. Thus, “[w]hen considered as a whole,” the hearings provided to the nonrenewed teachers were adequate as the teachers were given numerous opportunities to orally argue for their renewal and present evidence.

In this same vein, the Burnell court also held that there was no requirement, statutory or otherwise, requiring the municipal school district board to provide a rationale before or after a hearing held pursuant to R.C. 3311.81. No such rationale is required because R.C. 3311 “puts the onus on the teacher.” In other words, it is left to the teacher to show why his or her contract should be renewed and not the other way around.

In light of the Eighth District’s interpretation of R.C. 3311.81, it seems that when it comes to municipal school districts, more deference is afforded to their board, especially when the board collectively bargains with the teachers’ union over what kind of due process procedure will be afforded to non-renewed teachers.

If you have any questions concerning Burnell v. Cleveland Mun. School Dist. Bd. of Edn. or have any questions with respect to nonrenewal procedures of limited contract teachers, contact a member of our Education Law Liability Practice Group.

This has been prepared for informational purposes only. It does not contain legal advice or legal opinion and should not be relied upon for individual situations. Nothing herein creates an attorney-client relationship between the Reader and Reminger. The information in this document is subject to change and the Reader should not rely on the statements in this document without first consulting legal counsel.

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