Editors’ Note: The cases reported below concern the jurisdictional authority of the Commissioner of Education. The Commissioner has jurisdiction over violations of the “school laws of this state” and the regulations adopted under those laws. The Commissioner also has jurisdiction over violations of employment contracts that caused, or would cause, monetary harm. To establish jurisdiction, petitioners also must exhaust administrative remedies at the district level. Recently the Commissioner dismissed a number of cases for lack of jurisdiction. The cases are summarized briefly below.
TERMINATION OF A PROBATIONARY CONTRACT AT THE END OF THE CONTRACT PERIOD
Citation & Summary: Ray-Brown v. Longview ISD, Dkt. No. 044-R10-1211 (Comm’r Educ. August 30, 2013). Masika Ray-Brown was terminated from her position with the Longview Independent School District. Ray-Brown had a probationary contract at the time. The termination became effective at the end of the contract term. Ray-Brown filed a grievance challenging the termination, but the board denied the grievance. On appeal to the Commissioner of Education, Ray-Brown maintained that the district improperly terminated the probationary contract. The Commissioner held, however, that jurisdiction did not exist over the appeal. Under Texas Education Code § 21.103(a), the Commissioner generally does not have jurisdiction over probationary contract terminations that occur at the end of the contract term. One exception to this general rule occurs when a school district fails to timely give a teacher notice of the termination. Ray-Brown did not raise the issue of notice and, thus, the Commissioner did not have jurisdiction over the appeal.
THE PETITIONER’S CLAIMS WERE MOOT
Citation & Summary: Parents v. Priddy ISD, Dkt. No. 063-R10-0312 (Comm’r Educ. August 30, 2013). The parents filed a grievance on behalf of their son who had been a nonresident transfer student in the Priddy Independent School District from the 2008-09 school year to the 2010-11 school year. The parents filed an application for nonresident transfer for the 2011-12 school year as well. However, after six weeks into the 2011-12 school year, the superintendent informed the family that the student would not be allowed to remain in the district as a non-resident transfer. The parents filed a grievance, but the grievance was denied. In addition, the parents withdrew the student from the district. On appeal, the Commissioner held that the parents’ claims were moot because the student had been withdrawn from the district and expected to graduate from another district.
THE PETITIONERS DID NOT ALLEGE THE VIOLATION OF AN EMPLOYMENT CONTRACT OR MONETARY HARM
Citation & Summary: Oliveira v. Weslaco ISD, Dkt. No. 068-R10-0412 (Comm’r Educ. August 30, 2013). Eleven at-will employees working for the Weslaco Independent School District filed grievances complaining that their personal information was released by another district employee in violation of their employment contracts and Texas Government Code § 552.024. Prior to the release of the information, each of the employees signed a document indicating that they did not want the district to disclose their personal information. The Commissioner concluded, however, that because the employees were employed at-will, they could not allege the violation of an employment contract. The forms that they signed in which they denied authorization for the district’s release of personal information did not create a contract. Further, even if the form created a contract, the employees did not show monetary harm as a result of the release of information. Thus, the Commissioner did not have jurisdiction over the claims.
THE PETITIONERS DID NOT ALLEGE A VIOLATION OF THE SCHOOL LAWS OF TEXAS
Citation & Summary: Hiri v. Isaac Newton, Newton Law of Center Earth Gravity and Texas Education Agency, Dkt. No. 064- R8-0312 (Comm’r Educ. August 30, 2013). Frank Jeffery Hiri filed an appeal with the Commissioner of Education complaining that “Isaac Newton’s Law of Center Earth Gravity” is not valid and should not be taught. According to the Commissioner, Hiri failed to allege the violation of an employment contract or the school laws of Texas. Thus, jurisdiction did not exist over Hiri’s appeal.
Things to Remember: We tried to contact Mr. Newton to get his comments on this case, but we were not successful.
Citation & Summary: Child v. Edinburg Consolidated Independent School District, Dkt. No. 018-R10-11-2012 (Comm’r Educ. August 30, 2013). A parent filed a grievance complaining that the child’s teacher improperly recorded a writing assignment grade as a zero. According to the parent, a grade of zero for turning in a writing assignment late was arbitrary, erroneous, and not consistent with district policy because the grade did not reflect the level of mastery of the subject matter. In addition, the grade affected the student’s course grade. The parent claimed that this violated local policy and Education Code § 21.0216 which requires that districts adopt grading policies that (1) must require a classroom teacher to assign a grade that reflects the student’s relative mastery of an assignment; (2) may not require a teacher to assign a minimum grade for an assignment without regard to the student’s quality of work, and (3) may not allow a student a reasonable opportunity to make up or redo a class assignment or examination for which the student received a failing grade. The Commissioner did not have jurisdiction over the claims. Jurisdiction does not exist over alleged violations of local policy. Further, there was no allegation that the district failed to adopt grading policies pursuant to Education Code § 21.0216. Rather, the parent complained about the implementation of the district’s policy with respect to the student. Thus, jurisdiction did not exist over the parent’s appeal.
Citation & Summary: Child v. Conroe ISD, Dkt. No. 027-R10-1110 (Comm’r Educ. August 30, 2013). The parent of a student in the Conroe Independent School District filed an appeal with the Commissioner of Education, claiming that the district violated the student’s right to privacy. The appeal, however, did not allege the violation of any section of the Texas Education Code or title 19 of the Texas Administrative Code. The claim of “invasion of privacy” does not fall within the “school laws of this state.” Thus, the Commissioner lacked jurisdiction over the appeal.
Citation & Summary: Albarran v. Fort Bend ISD, Dkt. No. 048- R1-0511 (Comm’r Educ. August 30, 2013). Juan Albarran worked for the Fort Bend Independent School District, but was nonrenewed on April 25, 2011. Albarran appealed to the Commissioner of Education, claiming that the nonrenewal amounted to age, race, and national origin discrimination. Albarran initially cited Education Code § 7.057 and § 21.301, but later amended the petition, leaving § 7.057 as the only basis for jurisdiction. The Commissioner held that Albarran failed to establish the Commissioner’s jurisdiction over the petition. According to the Commissioner, a case to which Education Code, chapter 21, subchapter G applies cannot be brought under Education Code § 7.057, as a violation of the “school laws of this state.” Here, because this nonrenewal appeal could have been brought under chapter 21 of the Education Code, subchapter G, it could not be appealed under Education Code § 7.057. While normally the Commissioner would have allowed Albarran to replead, the timeline for doing so had expired. The mandatory deadline to issue a decision in this nonrenewal appeal was no later than the 30th day after the last day on which the petition for review was filed under Education Code § 21.301(b). If the Commissioner fails to issue a decision within that time, the board’s decision is automatically affirmed. That 30-day deadline had passed when Albarran requested that he be allowed to amend the petition. Thus, the Commissioner lacked jurisdiction over the appeal.
THE PETITIONERS DID NOT EXHAUST ADMINISTRATIVE REMEDIES
Citation & Summary: Morgan v. Denton Independent School District, Dkt. No. 054-R10-0112 (Comm’r Educ. August 30, 2013). Valda Morgan filed a grievance with the Denton Independent School District on October 6, 2011. The district’s grievance policy required a grievance to be filed within fifteen days of when a grievant knew or with reasonable diligence should have known of a decision or action giving rise to the complaint or grievance. In this case, Morgan filed a grievance but did not allege any wrongdoing within that fifteen-day timeframe. The most recent event about which she complained occurred on July 26, 2011, well outside of the grievance timeline. Because Morgan’s grievance was not filed timely, she failed to properly exhaust administrative remedies and her claims were dismissed for lack of jurisdiction.
Citation & Summary: Morgan v. Denton Independent School District, Dkt. No. 052-R10-0112 (Comm’r Educ. August 30, 2013). Valda Morgan filed a grievance on November 15, 2011 alleging that the district violated the Texas Open Meetings Act in how it handled two prior grievances that were heard by the board on October 25, 2011, and November 8, 2011. According to the Commissioner, Morgan improperly filed a grievance concerning conduct that occurred during the other two grievances. The Commissioner stated: “There is no need to file a grievance to complain as to the conduct of a grievance. If one were not to object and later file a grievance, one would have failed to exhaust administrative remedies by not timely objecting.” Here, instead of objecting to alleged improprieties during the prior two grievances, Morgan filed a separate grievance. Thus, the Commissioner held that Morgan failed to exhaust administrative remedies.
Citation & Summary: Foreman v. El Paso Independent School District, Dkt. No. 076-R2-08-2013 (Comm’r Educ. October 9, 2013). Vanessa Foreman appealed the El Paso Independent School District’s decision to terminate and nonrenew her contract. The board announced the decision on July 15, 2013. Under Texas Education Code § 21.301, the petition for review should have been filed twenty days later, on August 4, 2013. However, the petition for review was received by mail on August 8, 2013. Although Foreman emailed her petition within the twenty-day deadline, the Commissioner’s rules specify that filing must be accomplished by United States mail, delivery, or fax. Email is not an accepted method of filing a petition for review. Because the petition was not timely filed, the Commissioner lacked jurisdiction over the appeal.
COMMISSIONER DOES NOT CONDUCT INVESTIGATIONS
Citation & Summary: Child b/n/f Parent v. Rockwall ISD, Dkt. No. 076-R10-0512 (Comm’r Educ. August 30, 2013). The parent filed a grievance with the Rockwall Independent School District complaining of conduct by one of the school district’s coaches. The district granted the grievance, in part, but did not terminate the coach. The parent, therefore, appealed to the Commissioner of Education, asking that the Commissioner investigate the coach’s conduct and order the district to terminate the coach. The Commissioner did not have jurisdiction over the parent’s appeal. The Commissioner does not conduct investigations. Further, whether to terminate a contract is within the discretion of the school district. The Commissioner, therefore, cannot order a school board to terminate a contract. The Commissioner dismissed the appeal for lack of jurisdiction.
DID JURISDICTION EXIST WHEN THE BOARD HAD NOT CONSIDERED THE HEARING EXAMINER’S DECISION?
Citation: Rogers v. Dallas ISD, Dkt. No. 005-R1-09-2013 (Comm’r Educ. November 11, 2013).
Summary: Cecil Rogers worked for the Dallas Independent School District during the 2012-13 school year, when the district notified him that the board had voted to propose the nonrenewal of his term contract. At the nonrenewal hearing the district argued that Rogers’s contract had been voided because he was not certified by the State Board for Educator Certification. Because his contract was void, he was not entitled to a hearing under Chapter 21 of the Education Code. The hearing examiner dismissed the matter for lack of jurisdiction. The hearing examiner did not send the decision or the local record to the board president. As a result, neither the board nor a board subcommittee issued a decision concerning the hearing examiner’s decision. Rogers appealed the dismissal of the case to the Commissioner of Education, raising objections to the local record. The district argued that the Commissioner did not have jurisdiction over the appeal.
Ruling: The Commissioner held that jurisdiction did not exist over the appeal. According to the Commissioner, when an independent hearing examiner issues an order of dismissal in a Chapter 21 case, such an order is a “recommendation” under the Texas Education Code. The independent hearing examiner is required to send a copy of the recommendation and the local record to the board president not later than the 60th day after the date on which the Commissioner receives a teacher’s written request for a hearing or a later date if there is a valid agreed extension. The hearing examiner failed to do so in this case and, thus, violated Texas Education Code § 21.257. Because the board president had not received the recommendation, the timelines for issuing a decision had not started. Further, because the board had not held a hearing on the recommendation, the Commissioner held that jurisdiction did not exist over the appeal.