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A recent decision by the Commissioner of Education on a fine point of law involving personnel contracts could have wide ramifications for school districts statewide.

Joyce Woods worked as a counselor in the Houston ISD during the 2009-2010 school year. Upon being informed by the district that her next job would be as a teacher earning substantially less money, she filed a grievance.

Mark Tilley, a lawyer employed by the Texas Association of School Boards (TASB), helped walk me through what happened next. “Employees are always encouraged to discuss concerns and complaints informally with their supervisors,” he said. “[B]ut if informal conferences have not resulted in the outcome that an employee desires, he or she may file a formal grievance following the procedures in policy DGBA.”

Policy DGBA sets out a district’s policy on personnel grievances. In Ms. Woods’ case, the local DGBA policy for Houston ISD explicitly stated that “if at any level of the dispute resolution process the employee is granted the relief he or she has requested, the dispute shall be deemed resolved.”

Traditionally, a district’s DGBA represents a blueprint for handling personnel issues; it is not in and of itself a contract, nor has it historically been viewed as part of an employee’s contract.

Though her grievance was dismissed at Level I, it was granted at Level II by an independent hearing examiner. When the superintendent rejected the hearing examiner’s decision, Woods filed another grievance that was subsequently dismissed by the school board. Finally, she appealed the board’s decision to the Commissioner of Education, and won.

Significantly, the commissioner ruled that the DGBA policy was incorporated into Woods’ employment contract largely on the basis that it is “closely linked to the employment relationship.”  Accordingly, the last word in the counselor’s case should have been that of the independent hearing examiner, at Level II, who granted her the relief she had requested.

While Ms. Woods stands to get back pay, the good people of TASB are sifting through the implications of the Commissioner’s decision. “Other policies from the ‘D Section’ of the policy manual, which relates to personnel, would likely be considered closely linked with the employment relationship,” said Tilley. “For example, policy DEC related to leaves and absences and policy DH related to employee standards of conduct.”

The son of a retired school superintendent, Tilley is quick to remind me that his group is not trying to step on any local toes. “It is important to note that while TASB Policy Service creates ‘model policies,’ school districts are free to make changes to those policies.” For instance, he observed that the policy at issue in Woods v. Houston ISD was unique to that school district. However, he said, “[part] of TASB Legal Services’ mission is to provide training for board members, administrators and school attorneys, so talking about this case and what policies could be considered incorporated into an employee’s contract and therefore potentially under the Commissioner’s jurisdiction on appeal will be an important training topic.”

Look for further updates about this case.  The school district has filed a motion asking the Commissioner to withdraw this opinion, asserting that the case was actually settled before the decision was issued.  So stay tuned for further updates about this case.

There’s much more to read about Woods v. Houston ISD in the March issue of Texas School Administrators’ Legal Digest.

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