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Burlington Administrators' Association v. Burlington Board of School Commissioners

Supreme Court of Vermont

April 1, 2016

Burlington Administrators' Association and Nicolas Molander
v.
Burlington Board of School Commissioners

On Appeal from Superior Court, Chittenden Unit, Civil Division October Term, 2015

Helen M. Toor, J. Richard T. Cassidy of Hoff Curtis, Burlington, for Plaintiff-Appellant Molander.

Joseph A. Farnham, Colin K. McNeil and Kevin J. Coyle of McNeil, Leddy & Sheahan, Burlington, for Defendant-Appellee.

PRESENT: REIBER, C.J., DOOLEY, SKOGLUND, ROBINSON AND EATON, JJ.

ROBINSON, J.

¶ 1. The Burlington Administrators' Association and Nicolas Molander (collectively the Association) appeal the trial court's confirmation of an arbitration decision that Molander, in his capacity as an interim assistant principal, was not entitled to the contractual and statutory protections applicable to regular assistant principals who are not hired on an interim or acting basis. In particular, they challenge the trial court's conclusion that it had no authority to review the merits of the arbitrator's ruling for "manifest disregard of the law, " and argue that in this case, the arbitrator's ruling evinced such a disregard. Because we conclude that the arbitrator's award did not in any event reflect a manifest disregard of the law, we do not address the question whether the trial court had authority to review an arbitration award under such a standard. Accordingly, we affirm.

¶ 2. The facts of this case are not in dispute. At the beginning of the 2010-2011 school year, Brian Williams, Assistant Principal at Burlington High School (BHS), agreed to serve as Interim Principal for a different school in the district. Williams was granted a leave of absence from the BHS Assistant Principal position for that year, and BHS teacher Nicolas Molander agreed to serve as Interim Assistant Principal at BHS in order to fill the temporary vacancy in that position. Molander entered into a one-year agreement to serve as Interim Assistant Principal at BHS for the 2010-2011 school year.

¶ 3. In each of the next two school years, 2011-2012 and 2012-2013, Williams was granted a leave of absence from his position as BHS Assistant Principal in order to serve as Interim Principal at other schools, and Molander entered into one-year contracts as Interim Assistant Principal at BHS. In April 2013, Williams was appointed as the permanent Principal for the Sustainability Academy for the upcoming 2013-2014 school year, and accordingly, vacated his permanent Assistant Principal position at BHS.

¶ 4. Shortly after Williams' appointment, the school district began the hiring process for filling the newly vacant Assistant Principal position at BHS, as well as a second Assistant Principal position that was vacant due to a retirement. The search committee interviewed five candidates, including Molander, and recommended that Molander be appointed to one of the Assistant Principal positions. However, in May 2013 the Superintendent halted the selection process due to community concerns about the lack of diversity in the hiring pool. The Superintendent reopened the search to seek a more diverse pool of candidates, inviting the original candidates to reapply.

¶ 5. Given the more protracted selection process, Molander agreed to another one-year contract as Interim Assistant Principal at BHS for the 2013-2014 year. The selection process for non-interim Assistant Principals resumed in the spring of 2014. This time, a larger pool of candidates was reviewed based on a number of criteria, including cultural competence. Molander received high marks, including in the area of cultural competence, and the Superintendent recommended him for one of the two Assistant Principal positions. However, in the face of a contrary recommendation from the school district's Director of Diversity, Equity, and Employee Relations, the committee that had the ultimate authority to make the hire deadlocked, and did not hire Molander for the regular Assistant Principal position.

¶ 6. In June 2014, Molander filed a formal grievance with the Principal of BHS and the Superintendent of Schools contending he was improperly denied the opportunity to continue serving as Assistant Principal at BHS. Specifically, Molander argued that he was entitled to the due process protections in the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) applicable to administrators. Later that month, the board denied the grievance, concluding that the protections Molander sought to invoke did not apply to him in his capacity as an interim administrator. Pursuant to the CBA, the Burlington Administrators Association, on behalf of Molander, submitted the dispute to arbitration.

¶ 7. Several provisions of the applicable CBA informed the dispute before the arbitrator. Section 1.1 of the CBA defines "administrator" with reference to 16 V.S.A. § 1981(l), and specifically includes interim administrative positions unless otherwise agreed upon. The statute referenced in this definition defines "administrator" as any person so licensed who spends most of his or her employed time in any of a number of roles, including assistant principal. 16 V.S.A. § 1981(l). Section 1.2 provides that unless otherwise indicated, the term "administrators" when used in the CBA refers to all administrative employees.

¶ 8. The section of the CBA that governs the terms of administrator employment contains two sections that are relevant. Section 4.2 provides that an administrator is on probationary status during the first two years of administrative employment, during which time the decision to re-employ the administrator is at the option of the superintendent, and is not subject to appeal. Section 4.5 states, "[a]n administrator may be employed as an acting administrator when the need arises. An administrator may not be employed in such status for longer than fifteen (15) months without the approval of the Association." The section also provides that acting administrators are not eligible for the same benefits upon termination as regular administrators, and do not accrue seniority on the same terms.

¶ 9. Finally, the Association relied on two statutes in framing their arguments to the arbitrator. One, 16 V.S.A. § 243(c), states that "[a] principal who has been continuously employed for more than two years in the same position has the right either to have his or her contract renewed, or to receive written notice of nonrenewal at least 90 days before the existing contract expires." The statute provides certain procedural protections to principals employed continuously for more than two years. The second, incorporated into the CBA by reference with respect ...


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