Although not quite rating the level of national interest lately drawn by retired NSA contractor Edward Snowden, the Delfino Aleman affair in Edcouch, Texas has led to an important ruling on First Amendment rights that government employees in general (and school superintendents in particular) would be wise to heed.

At the end of what would appear to have been a rocky working relationship, the Edcouch-Elsa school board cited 27 reasons to dismiss Mr. Aleman from his post as Superintendent. After a hearing examiner threw out 25.5 of them, the board made do with the remainder, which dealt largely with disparaging comments Aleman made about the board to a local TV news reporter. They fired.  He sued.

Mike Saldaña, an attorney in the Rio Grande Valley office of the law firm of Walsh, Anderson, Gallegos, Green & Treviño, represented Edcouch-Elsa ISD in the lawsuit.  Mr. Saldaña explained some of the issues the federal court addressed in its ruling, which was in favor of the school district.

“Once an individual becomes an employee of a governmental entity,” Saldaña said, “he or she becomes, in essence, part of the team.  The entity, through its elected officials, must operate efficiently.  Sometimes, as the employee works closer and closer to the governing body—be it a Board, Commission, etc.—the efficiency of the operations and accomplishment of the entity’s legitimate goals, requires that the employee work closely with the governing body.”

Superintendent Aleman had suggested to the TV reporter that the board was comprised of “reactionary,” “underhanded,” “micro-manager types.”

“A court,” said Saldaña, “will balance…efficiency with the First Amendment rights of the individual to determine if [the complaint] is in fact an issue of public concern or part and parcel of the employee’s duties.  When the efficiency of the entity suffers, a Court will tend to lean toward the entity and against the individual’s rights.”

In its ruling for the district, the trial court found that while certainly of public concern, Aleman’s comments had undermined the effectiveness of his working relationship with the board. Since a smooth working relationship between the board and a district’s superintendent is paramount, a superintendent does not necessarily enjoy the same first amendment protections as would a bus driver or teacher.

Saldaña was a member of the Brownsville school board for seven years, including one as Board President. “Communications are the key,” he told me. “If a Superintendent is [publicly referring to the board as ‘dysfunctional’], probably communications have already broken down.  A Board must communicate its feelings to the Superintendent and everyone should be on notice that the efficiency of the operations of the District…are at stake.”

Asked if things would have been different had Aleman aired his grievances privately, in a closed door session of the board, Saldaña said, “The result is the same for the Superintendent: alienation of the Board.  Without publication, there is even less protection for the Superintendent.”

Read much more about Aleman v. Edcouch Elsa ISD in the February edition of Texas School Administrators’ Legal Digest.

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