New Hampshire Bar Journal
2005 Fall, 52.
Appeal Rights in Teacher Non-Renewal Cases Does Hopkinton Provide Any Guidance
New Hampshire Bar Journal Volume 46, No. 3, Pg. 52 Fall 2005 Appeal Rights in Teacher Non-Renewal Cases Does Hopkinton Provide Any Guidance Bar Journal Author - Sarah Fox
Can a school board, which by statute often serves as a decision-maker in determining to renew or not renew a teacher's contract, subsequently provide a fair avenue of appeal to a teacher dissatisfied with a non-renewal decision? On September 9, 2004, in Appeal of Hopkinton School District, the New Hampshire Supreme Court affirmatively answered that, absent a showing of actual bias or prejudice, a school board may conduct a non-renewal hearing. Shortly before the Court issued this decision, the New Hampshire Legislature amended the teacher non-renewal statute provisions under which Hopkinton was decided. The question then becomes, considering these legislative changes, is Hopkinton of any precedential value or guidance? This article will analyze the appeal standard that applied prior to and as a result of the Hopkinton decision, the legislative changes to the teacher non-renewal statute, and what standard will now be applied in appeals regarding non-renewal decisions. This analysis reveals that the "actual bias" standard used in Hopkinton has been replaced with a broader but higher standard of whether the decision was clearly erroneous.
In Appeal of Hopkinton School District, the court held that to overturn a school board's non-renewal decision, the State Board of Education must find the that school board showed actual bias in making the employment decision.(fn1) The law in effect at the time the non-renewal appeal was presented to the hearing officer and State Board of Education did not set forth a clear standard of review.
Appeal of Hopkinton School District involved three different levels of appeal for this teacher non-renewal case; at the school board level, the State Board of Education and finally the Supreme Court. The facts in Hopkinton are as follows: Mary Beth Stevens was hired as the principal at Maple Street School in Hopkinton in 1996.(fn2) In the 1998/1999 school year, although Stevens received a generally favorable evaluation; Superintendent Richard Ayers noted that he needed to create an action plan to address his concerns with Stevens' communication skills and lack of a fully developed curriculum.(fn3 )Ayers provided Stevens with an action plan for the 2000-2001 school year. Meanwhile, the Hopkinton School Board's evaluation of Ayers also indicated concerns about the leadership at the Maple Street School.(fn4)
In Stevens' February 2001 evaluation, Ayers again noted curriculum and communication problems.(fn5) Ayers presented Stevens with another action plan on April 13, 2001 in a meeting attended by the School Board Chair and Peggy McAllister, the Executive Director of the New Hampshire Association of Principals.(fn6) Ayers told Stevens that full implementation of the plan would be necessary for her to succeed as the principal of the school.(fn7) In the ensuing 2001-2002 school year, Ayers' concerns with Stevens' leadership continued, and, on March 30, 2002, Ayers informed Stevens that her contract would not be renewed primarily because she did not complete the action plan as required.(fn8)
Pursuant to RSA 189:14-a, Stevens petitioned for a letter of reasons a and a hearing before the Hopkinton School Board to explain the non-renewal.(fn9) After a public board hearing held at Stevens' request, the Hopkinton School Board affirmed Ayer's recommendation for non-renewal on May 16, 2002.(fn10) Stevens then appealed to the State Board of Education claiming she was denied a fair hearing.(fn11) She claimed that the Hopkinton School Board was biased because it had an alleged role in the design and implementation of her action plan and that the school board was pressuring Ayers to "get rid of [her]."(fn12)
The State Board of Education appointed a hearing officer to hear the case and determine what standard of bias should be applied, as well as to make a recommendation as to whether there was bias in this case.(fn13) The hearing officer heard testimony from several witnesses including Ayers, Stevens, and Peggy McAllister, who attended the April 13, 2001 meeting.(fn14) The hearing officer found that, in the totality of the...