A state appeals court this week declared unconstitutional a 2012 law that gave Louisiana school superintendents wide discretion in firing tenured teachers.
The law, part of the state Legislature’s controversial public schools overhaul in 2012, was rewritten last year and no longer includes some of the provisions found suspect in the state 3rd Circuit Court of Appeal ruling on Wednesday.
But the decision this week could bolster the arguments of tenured teachers challenging terminations from July 2012 to June 2014, the time between when the 2012 law was passed and when the Legislature tweaked it.
It was unclear how many tenured teachers fired during that time period have challenged their dismissals and would be affected by the appeals court ruling.
The appeals court found that the lack of a full hearing before a teacher was fired — and questions about the process for post-termination hearings — improperly gave superintendents too much unchecked authority.
“With this type of process in place, the superintendent is the only decision maker,” the three-judge appeals panel wrote.
The ruling came in the case of Kasha LaPointe, who filed a lawsuit to challenge her termination in 2013 for what Vermilion Parish Superintendent Jerome Puyau alleged was “willful neglect of duty and dishonesty.”
A district judge dismissed her claims after a trial last year, but the appeals court sided with LaPointe.
The state Attorney General’s Office, which argued in support of the 2012 law, is considering asking the state Supreme Court to review this week’s ruling.
“We are in communications with the administration, and an appeal appears likely,” state Attorney General’s Office spokeswoman Laura Gerdes Colligan said in an emailed statement.
Under the 2012 law, a terminated teacher was given an opportunity to respond to a superintendent but wasn’t allowed a full pretermination hearing, a process the appeals court judges said violated a state constitutional provision allowing an employee “to tell his side of the story before termination.”
A teacher could have asked for a hearing after being fired, but the request would have been heard by a three-person panel made up of someone chosen by the superintendent, someone chosen by the principal of the school where the teacher worked and someone chosen by the teacher.
The appeals ruling found the three-person panel seemed weighted against the teacher, considering the superintendent and principal likely would be in agreement. The judges also noted that the panel could make only recommendations, which the superintendent was not obliged to follow.
“Once the superintendent has decided to terminate a teacher without a full hearing, it is almost impossible that a teacher will be reinstated,” the appeals judges wrote in an eight-page opinion ordering the School Board to reinstate LaPointe with back pay.
The state Legislature last year revised the law in question to allow teachers to ask for a hearing in front of a disciplinary officer before a superintendent’s recommendation for dismissal is finalized.
Under the revised law, the disciplinary officer is randomly chosen from a list approved by school board members and has the power to reverse the superintendent’s decision.
It is unclear how many pending teacher challenges fall within the two-year window between the 2012 law and the 2014 revision, and the 3rd Circuit decision has a direct impact only in cases within that court’s jurisdiction — a 21-parish region in southwest and central Louisiana.
Baton Rouge attorney Brian Blackwell, who represented LaPointe, said in an email that he is handling four or five similar cases in the state.
“I’m sure there are others,” he said.