When a public school superintendent in Kentucky fires an educator, there’s a good chance a tribunal, a three-member appeal panel, will reverse it.
Wayne Young, executive director of the Kentucky Association of School Administrators, has looked at cases dating to 1992 and has found that in most, the termination was reversed or modified. A Herald-Leader review of cases from 2013 to 2015 found similar results.
Superintendents in Kentucky want to change that system — starting with eliminating the panel of a teacher, an administrator and a lay person and instead using a hearing officer who is an attorney trained in education policy. Legislation to make that change was introduced in the 2016 General Assembly, but it did not have success. Neither did another bill that would have changed the process.
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A teacher in Kentucky can be fired for insubordination, immoral character, conduct unbecoming a teacher, physical or mental disability, inefficiency, incompetence or neglect of duty.
Of six termination or suspension cases in which an educator requested a tribunal in Kentucky in 2015, only two were upheld, according to state education records obtained by the Herald-Leader under the Kentucky Open Records Act.
The cases that were overturned included that of a Warren County teacher who allegedly was overheard giving an unruly student his home address and inviting that student to come to his home and fight him.
Another termination was overturned and replaced with a suspension for an Ohio County teacher who was found to have helped a student cheat in a course.
Jeff Walther, a Lexington attorney who represents educators who have been fired or suspended, said “the fact that many decisions are reversed indicates that superintendents often make those decisions based upon incomplete information, or because of factors having nothing to do with the conduct at issue.”
“Tribunals do often reverse decisions made by superintendents. The tribunal, unlike the superintendent, functions as an impartial adjudicator. Tribunal members make decisions only after a full hearing of all the evidence, presented by both the teacher and superintendent.”
Lexington attorney Joellen McComb, who also has represented fired teachers who appeal to a tribunal, holds a similar view: “We have in place a good administrative procedure” that gives teachers due process.
McComb said the legislation proposed this year departs from current law “for no good reason.”
But Young, of the school administrators association, said his group’s concern with the tribunal system is that “the history of tribunals is inconsistent and unpredictable.
“There is no rhyme or reason to the outcomes we see. Superintendents are reluctant to pursue even strong cases for fear that their decision will be overturned or modified. A better system would allow them to effectively gauge the potential outcome of their case before making the decision.”
Walther, however, said that if a superintendent’s decision is reduced, that doesn’t mean the teacher escapes punishment. A tribunal usually will impose some punishment based on the severity of conduct, he said. For example, tribunals have reversed terminations but have imposed suspensions without pay for months or years.
The Kentucky education commissioner appoints a tribunal. It consists of one teacher, who may be retired; one administrator, who may be retired; and one lay person — none of whom resides in the district. All are trained by the Kentucky Department of Education. A hearing officer appointed by the commissioner presides over the hearing.
Under Senate Bill 88, sponsored by Sen. David Givens, R-Greensburg, the tribunal would have been eliminated. The hearing officer would be trained by the Department of Education and would be able to mediate the firing or hold a due-process hearing.
Senate Bill 194, sponsored by Sen. Julie Racque Adams, R-Louisville, would have removed the lay person from the tribunal and made the hearing officer the chairman of the tribunal. The legislation also would have required that school superintendents conduct a name-based background check of child abuse and neglect records maintained by the Cabinet for Health and Family Services when considering employment decisions.
Fayette County Superintendent Manny Caulk said he was inclined to support such changes.
“The current process appears designed to protect the interests of employees rather than the interests of our students. Some of these cases involve laws being broken, and I agree with the proposal to place those decisions in the hands of a legal authority.”
The Kentucky Education Association, a school employees group, opposed the legislation. “We have a longstanding opposition to changes in the current tribunal process,” KEA spokesman Charles Main said. “As it stands, the process ensures due process for certified school employees that is fair and unbiased. It does not put the fate of a teacher’s career in the hands of one person.”