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Jennifer Longanecker was a tenured fifth-grade teacher in the East Moline School District. In 2014, the School Board found that she helped a student cheat on the Illinois Standards Achievement Test. In doing so, the Board reversed a hearing officer’s finding that she had not helped the student cheat. Ms. Longanecker sued and the case has been making its way through the Illinois state courts ever since. First, the Circuit Court affirmed the Board’s decision and this last stop finds the Appellate Court doing so, as well.

The Appellate Court’s decision solidifies the developing trend in Illinois school law to defer to the School Board’s decision – and not the hearing officer’s findings and recommendations – when reviewing the dismissal of a teacher. The trend started in 2011 when the state legislature amended the School Code by granting the School Board’s discretion to overrule a hearing officer’s decision. It gained traction in 2016, when the Supreme Court, in the Beggs v. Murphyrsboro School District case, interpreted the amendment and confirmed that the final decision, for purposes of administrative review, is the School Board’s decision – not the hearing officer’s. The Supreme Court added that this is appropriate “even when the findings of fact depend on the credibility of the witnesses – and even if the hearing officer, rather than the board, observed those witnesses.”

Now the Longanecker case solidifies that trend.  Still, the teacher argued against it, citing the Appellate Court’s  decision in Burgess v. Illinois State Board of Education earlier this year – which overturned a School Board’s findings because they went against the manifest weight of the evidence. But the Appellate Court here distinguished the Burgess case, pointing out that, in reversing the hearing officer’s findings the School Board there failed to provide sufficient fact-finding or explanation in support of its decision. By way of contrast, the East Moline School Board provided what the court found to be sufficient explanation and fact-finding in support of its decision.

The take-away? It’s not so much that hearing officers are becoming irrelevant; it’s that Illinois courts are growing more and more willing to roll up their sleeves, sift through the evidence, evaluate the factual findings and legal conclusions and ultimately make their own determination as to whether the School Board, in reversing the hearing officer, gets it right.

School Boards therefore should take care to include sufficient explanation and factual findings in support of any decision that overturns the findings and recommendations of a hearing officer in a teacher discipline case.

Find the full opinion of the Court at https://courts.illinois.gov/Opinions/AppellateCourt/2020/3rdDistrict/3150890.pdf.

For more information about this article, contact Tressler attorney Scott Stewart at scottstewart@tresslerllp.com.