On Appeal from Superior Court, Rutland Unit, Civil Division. William D. Cohen, J.
William B. Miller, Jr. and Wanda Otero-Weaver of Langrock Sperry & Wool, LLP, Middlebury, for Plaintiff-Appellant.
Pietro J. Lynn and Sean M. Toohey of Lynn, Lynn & Blackman, P.C., Burlington, for Defendants-Appellees.
Present: Reiber, C.J., Dooley, Skoglund and Eaton, JJ., and Morris, Supr. J. (Ret.), Specially Assigned
[¶1] Plaintiff Juanita Burch-Clay sought review in Rutland Superior Court of the West Rutland School Board's decision to terminate her employment contract. The superior court affirmed the Board's decision, and plaintiff appealed to this Court, arguing that procedural defects invalidated her post-termination hearing and that the Board lacked just and sufficient cause for her termination. We affirm.
[¶2] The following facts are undisputed, except where otherwise noted. In 2011, the Board hired plaintiff as principal of West Rutland School with a two-year contract beginning July 1, 2011. In February 2012, the superintendent conducted a staff survey concerning plaintiff's performance and received both positive and negative comments. In response to the survey, the superintendent completed a " formative performance evaluation," dated February 28, in which she evaluated plaintiff in six performance areas. The evaluation addressed plaintiff's strengths and also noted areas for improvement. The superintendent testified that she shared the results of this evaluation with the Board at its March 14 meeting. In addition to the concerns raised in the superintendent's evaluation, the Board had developed its own concerns about plaintiff's performance.
[¶3] Plaintiff's contract authorizes the Board to not renew her contract by providing written notice of its reasons for nonrenewal on or before March 15. By letter dated March 14, the Board notified plaintiff of its decision not to renew her contract, citing " school climate" as the reason for nonrenewal. The letter also stated that the Board would be willing to reconsider its decision upon plaintiff's successful participation in a remedial plan developed and approved by the superintendent and the Board. Plaintiff followed up with a letter dated March 19 expressing her desire to work collaboratively with the Board to address its concerns.
[¶4] On April 2, plaintiff met with the superintendent and the Board to discuss the plan for remediation. That same day, the Board provided plaintiff with a letter outlining " performance deficiencies and Board expectations that require corrective action by" plaintiff. The letter directed plaintiff to provide written summaries of specific actions that plaintiff planned to take to address the problem areas discussed in the letter: student/parent favoritism, failure to foster inclusiveness, communication issues, and scope of authority/communication with the Board. The letter further stressed that " failure on [plaintiff's] part to meet the expectations set forth above will result in appropriate action by the Board." The letter provided no specific deadline for completion of the assigned tasks. The Board also directed plaintiff not to make any public statement about the status of her contract.
[¶5] In a letter dated April 5, plaintiff acknowledged receipt of the April 2 letter and plan for remediation and indicated her commitment to the school and her desire to work with the Board on meeting its expectations. Around April 9, plaintiff posted an entry to the " Principal's Blog" on the school's website, indicating that it was her " understanding" that she would be continuing at the school during the next year and that she and the Board were " eager to work well together." On May 23, the superintendent sent plaintiff an email regarding plaintiff's discussions with parents and teachers about her contract status. The superintendent reiterated the need for confidentiality and again directed plaintiff not to speak publicly about the matter, warning her that " [f]ailure to do so will result in further disciplinary action." In a June 3 email to the superintendent, plaintiff admitted that she " inadvertently caused more talk [among the parents] by answering a query" about a recent meeting.
[¶6] On May 7 and May 21, plaintiff again met with the superintendent and the Board. Plaintiff had not yet prepared written responses to the Board's April 2 letter by the May 7 meeting but provided her responses at the May 21 meeting. The Board reviewed plaintiff's responses but at that time did not take action in reconsidering nonrenewal of her contract.
[¶7] On June 2, the superintendent arranged for plaintiff to consult with a former public school administrator to discuss the issues raised in the April 2 letter. In an email to the superintendent the following day, plaintiff expressed positive thoughts about the meeting with the former administrator, acknowledged and apologized for her actions that had " hurt the community," and reemphasized her eagerness to address the Board's concerns and improve her performance. Two days later, the Board chair forwarded to the rest of the Board members an email chain that contained communications from another school employee to parents and staff concerning plaintiff's performance, proposing a new governance model for the school, and supporting the Board's March 14 nonrenewal decision. The email first had
been forwarded to the superintendent, who wrote, " The last nail in the coffin?" before forwarding the message on to the Board chair. In his message to the other Board members, the chair briefly stated that the email was " not good" and mentioned future meeting dates.
[¶8] The superintendent prepared a " summative evaluation" dated June 8, which highlighted many deficiencies raised in the earlier formative evaluation that had not yet been remedied. The superintendent twice met with plaintiff to review the evaluation, which plaintiff refused to sign, stating that she did not agree with it.
[¶9] On June 21, the Board sent plaintiff a letter notifying her of its decision to affirm its March 14 nonrenewal of her contract for the 2012-2013 school year. In its letter, the Board noted that plaintiff failed to timely submit her written responses regarding her performance deficiencies and Board expectations, as set out in the April 2 letter. The Board further stated that, upon reviewing and discussing the responses that plaintiff provided at the May 21 meeting, it concluded that plaintiff had not taken seriously the concerns set forth in the April 2 letter and had not " demonstrated a sincere commitment to address [those] concerns."
[¶10] On the same day, the Board sent a second letter notifying plaintiff that the Board was initiating termination of her contract and would be meeting on July 11 to consider whether it had cause to terminate her contract. The letter also notified plaintiff of her right to request a post-termination hearing. The termination letter explained that plaintiff's responses to the remediation plan and accompanying letter had been " uncooperative, untimely and insubordinate." It also addressed plaintiff's public statements about her contract status, the negative feedback provided in the superintendent's evaluations, and the Board's belief that plaintiff's written responses showed " no serious consideration" of its concerns and " no sincere commitment" to address those concerns. This letter apparently was sent in an effort to provide an alternative route to terminating plaintiff's employment because plaintiff took the position that she had a two-year contract and that renewal into the second year was automatic. The case proceeded as a termination pursuant to this second letter, and the Board appears to have abandoned its nonrenewal action.
[¶11] A post-termination hearing was conducted over four days in July. The Board chair presided over the hearing until the last day, when he was called to testify against plaintiff on the matter of the parent who claimed that the chair had disclosed information about plaintiff from the Board's executive sessions. After appearing as a witness, the chair recused himself from further participation in the hearing, deliberation, and final vote on termination. The Board issued its final decision on August 12, concluding that it had just and sufficient cause to terminate plaintiff's employment contract. One member authored a dissenting opinion highlighting what she perceived was bias against plaintiff on the part of the Board chair and vice-chair from as early as fall 2011.
[¶12] Plaintiff filed a motion in the superior court for review under Vermont Rule of Civil Procedure 74, raising claims of both procedural defects and a lack of just cause for her termination. The superior court found no error in the conduct of the hearing and concluded that the Board had just and sufficient cause for termination. Plaintiff renews her claims on appeal to this Court. She first argues that she was denied due process of law because: (1) the Board was biased against her; (2) the Board had a conflict of interest based
on participation in another lawsuit; (3) the Board chair improperly participated in the hearing as both the presiding officer and a witness; (4) the Board and the superintendent violated the Vermont Administrative Procedure Act (APA); (5) the Board abused its discretion in excluding relevant evidence; and (6) the Board and the superintendent violated Vermont's open-meeting law. She then argues that, in spite of these procedural defects, the Board failed to present evidence of just and sufficient cause for her termination. We affirm the judgment of the superior court and conclude that plaintiff was not denied due process and that the Board had just and sufficient cause for her termination.
[¶13] The foundation for our review here is the statute governing the termination of public school principals, 16 V.S.A. § 243(d), and the procedural rule governing the scope of appeal from termination decisions of the school ...