Two weeks before the school board election, the board gave the superintendent a pay raise and extended his contract to a full five years.  Then the board election happened, and everything changed.  Four new board members were elected, defeating incumbents decisively. Change was in the air.

This is the background to the very interesting case of Jasso v. Southside ISD, decided by the Commissioner of Education March 28, 2014. In that decision, Commissioner Williams upheld the decision of the Southside School Board to terminate the contract of Dr. Juan Jasso, the superintendent.  Commissioner Williams concluded that Dr. Jasso made public statements about the board that were “belligerent and unprofessional. They destroyed the trust that a superintendent and a school board need if there is to be an effective working relationship.” Thus the superintendent’s statements gave the board “good cause to terminate his term contract.”

The case emphasizes the importance of trust and effective communication among the members of the district’s leadership team.  While the law does not expect board members and superintendents to agree on all issues, the Commissioner emphasizes that “tact and diplomacy” are necessary.  A good working relationship is essential, and it is the responsibility of each board member and the superintendent to foster that relationship.

Stacy Castillo, an attorney with the San Antonio office of Walsh, Anderson, Gallegos, Green and Trevino, P.C., handled this case for the district.  She noted that superintendents need to be “open to new directions and new perspectives,” particularly when political changes occur.  However, “this does not mean that the superintendent is a rubber stamp” for whatever the board wants. Indeed, in his appeal, Dr. Jasso pointed out that a superintendent is required to make recommendations to the board on personnel matters as well as policy.  The Commissioner’s decision acknowledges this, but puts the burden on the superintendent to exercise “tact and diplomacy” in expressing his or her views, all with an eye toward maintenance of an effective, trusting, open working relationship.

Bill Nemir is the Director of Leadership Team Services at the Texas Association of School Boards.  Nemir, along with TASB lawyers, cautions trustees about drawing any general conclusions from this case, which was decided on a unique set of facts. But Nemir cited the “general rule” that “the district, the superintendent, and the board all stand to lose when a school official repeats gossip or makes public statements disparaging another member of the leadership team.”

            Bill Nemir is the Director of Leadership Team Services at the Texas Association of School Boards.  Nemir, along with TASB lawyers, cautions trustees about drawing any general conclusions from this case, which was decided on a unique set of facts. But Nemir cited the “general rule” that “the district, the superintendent, and the board all stand to lose when a school official repeats gossip or makes public statements disparaging another member of the leadership team.”

There is a big difference, Nemir pointed out, between policy disagreements and personal disputes.  “It’s perfectly fine,” he stated, “for board members and the superintendent to disagree publicly and civilly about a matter of public policy. But critical remarks and negative comments about a person are a whole different matter.”

Both Castillo and Nemir pointed out that there are numerous ways for board members and superintendents to work out their differences without destroying the trust that they need to govern effectively.  Board presidents can play a critical role in this.

All members of the leadership team are responsible for maintaining a good working relationship.  This decision from the Commissioner affirms that general principle.  Read about it more fully in the July/August issue of the Texas School Administrators’ Legal Digest.

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