Terminating a tenured teacher: What is a ‘good and just cause’?

By Steve Adams

When assessing whether to dismiss a tenured teacher, school administrators have to take into account the Rhode Island Teacher Tenure Act, court interpretations of the Act, and relevant language in collective bargaining agreements.

The Rhode Island Teacher Tenure Act requires a school to establish a “good and just cause” for firing a tenured teacher. The Act, however, does not define “good and just cause,” leaving school administrators to make that assessment in view of court interpretations of the law.

Importantly, the school department has the burden of proof to prove that it had good and just cause to fire the teacher. Although the union will always argue for a higher standard (clear and convincing evidence), a school committee has to establish “good and just cause” by the evidentiary standard known as “preponderance of the evidence”, which is just another way of saying it’s more likely than not that the school has sufficient cause to fire a teacher.

A Rhode Island Superior Court judge observed that good and just cause “includes ‘any ground that is put forth by the school board in good faith and which is not arbitrary, irrational, unreasonable or irrelevant to the task of building and maintaining an efficient school system.’” Pierre v. Smithfield Sch. Committee, 2009 WL 3328362 (R.I. Superior Ct.)

The judge in Pierre v. Smithfield School Committee also observed that “good and just cause includes any cause bearing a reasonable relationship to the teacher’s fitness to discharge her duties or which materially and substantially affects performance.”

In addition, to bolster a decision to fire a teacher under a given set of circumstances, a school department can use the BEP’s requirement that school districts must make student learning the touchstone for every decision, including personnel decisions.

One incident alone

One incident alone can be sufficient cause, according to the Rhode Island Superior Court. In McCrink v. City of Providence, a Superior Court judge agreed with the Rhode Island Department of Education that the school committee had just cause to fire a tenured teacher who failed to report his absence from school, and failed to provide a lesson plan for a substitute teacher in violation of school policy.

The teacher had a checkered employment history with the school, which likely played a role in the termination, and which was specifically referenced by the RIDE hearing officer and the Superior Court judge. Nevertheless, the employee’s work history was not the reason for dismissal, and it was not the reason that the reviewing bodies upheld the termination.

Poor overall performance

In a recent case that we handled, an arbitrator upheld the dismissal of a tenured teacher after just 20 days on the job following the teacher’s switch to a different school within the school district. In that case, as opposed to McCrink, there was no specific incident that gave rise to the termination. Instead, the school department argued that the teacher’s overall performance was so poor that it needed to remove her from the classroom.

In addition to arguing that the school department did not provide adequate notice of the charges against the teacher, the union primarily asserted that by pulling the plug on an 18-year veteran teacher after the first 20 days of school, the school department did not give the teacher an adequate opportunity to improve her teaching practice, assuming that there were deficiencies.

The arbitrator rejected the union’s argument, finding that, even during the short period time in question, the teacher had been given several opportunities to improve and she had failed to do so.

Two factors were likely critical to the arbitrator’s decision.

First, the school department documented the deficiencies every step of the way and provided that documentation to the teacher at the time.

Second, to the extent that the case turned on witness credibility, the school department witnesses were more credible than the teacher. In this regard, it is really important to understand that outcomes in litigation are often determined by the ability of individuals as witnesses. School personnel may be adroit in the classroom, but they must be well-prepared to provide compelling testimony in an adversary proceeding. The lawyer’s job is to get the most out of each witness, recognizing that some people are more natural in that setting than others.

Except in the most egregious cases where conduct is unquestionably inappropriate, e.g., sexual assault on students or fellow staff, school administrators, before making the decision to dismiss a tenured teacher, generally must be able to demonstrate that they have given notice to the teacher of the conduct that gives rise to the adverse action, as well as an opportunity to improve.

With this caveat, examples of teacher actions that could establish good cause for a termination include:

  • Abusive language directed at students
  • Failure to follow curriculum guidelines
  • Failure to adopt new teaching methods requested by school administrators
  • Insubordination
  • Difficulties with scheduling and keeping appointments
  • Taking an unauthorized sick day after request for personal day was denied
  • Inability to manage discipline in the classroom

Steve is an administrative partner in the Providence office of Barton Gilman. He focuses his practice on school law and civil litigation.