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James v. Dallas ISD, Dkt. No. 028-R10-03-2015 (Comm’r Educ. October 15, 2015).

Facts:  On August 20, 2013, the administrator received a new assignment to a middle school assistant principal and was notified that his salary would be reduced from $79,988 to $73,000, effective July 31, 2013.  The administrator questioned the salary reduction because it occurred within 45 days of the first day of instruction – before he could unilaterally resign from his contract.  Shortly thereafter he was notified that his annual salary for the 2013-2014 school year would remain $79,988.00, but would be reduced for 2014-2015 “to be reflective of assignment.”  In June of 2014, the District’s Board of Trustees adopted a Salary Handbook, which set middle school assistant principal salaries within a range between $59,400 and $76,500.  On September 11, 2014, the administrator received a letter stating that he would be assigned as an assistant principal effective July 28, 2014, at a salary of $73,000.  The 45th day prior to the start of instruction for the 2014-2015 school year was July 11, 2014.  The administrator appealed through the grievance process and when that was unsuccessful, he appealed to the Commissioner of Education.  He argued that the District illegally reduced his salary without prior warning at a time when he could no longer unilaterally resign from his contract. The District maintained that he received sufficient prior warning a year prior to the actual salary reduction.

Holding:  The Commissioner agreed with the District and held that the administrator received sufficient notice of the reduction of his salary.  The District complied with Texas Education Code § 21.210, which requires notice of any salary reduction to occur outside of the 45 days prior to the first day of instruction, when an educator can unilaterally resign.  The Commissioner observed that, under the test articulated in Brajenovich v. Alief Indep. Sch. Dist., Docket No. 021-R10-1106 (Comm’r Educ. 2009), a warning of an impending salary decrease must be both formal and specific to give the educator a meaningful opportunity to decide whether to continue employment with a district.

In this case, the administrator did not dispute that the letter of September 5, 2013 was sufficiently formal, in that it was in writing and was sent by the human relations office, which is all the Brajenovich test requires in terms of formality. Instead, he argued that the warning in the September 5, 2013 letter was not sufficiently specific under the Brajenovich test.  The Commissioner disagreed.  The record showed that the District informed the administrator on September 5, 2013 that his salary for the 2014-2015 school year would be “reflective of assignment.”  The Board of Trustees had published a Salary Handbook online that included a salary chart for assistant principals. When the administrator received the District’s notice on September 5, 2013, he should have known by referring to the Salary Handbook that his salary for his assigned position as a middle school assistant principal could be between $59,400 and $76,500. The September 5, 2013 letter, therefore, contained enough information that he should have known that his salary for the 2014-2015 school year could be reduced to $59,400. The District actually reduced his salary to $73,000, which is the same amount the District had previously informed him it intended to pay him as an Assistant Principal at Rusk Middle School during the 2013-2014 school year. The notice of reduction was sufficiently specific under the Brajenovich test, and the District, therefore, acted legally when it reduced the administrator’s salary to $73,000 at a time when he could not unilaterally resign from his contract.

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