PHILADELPHIA – A recent Commonwealth Court ruling that reinstated a Philadelphia teacher stands as a clear reminder to school districts of the importance of following the proper employee termination laws and procedures.
“You have to be very careful,” David J. Mongillo of Tucker Arensberg PC told the Pennsylvania Record. “You’ve got to follow (the procedures) very strictly.”
In the case of School District Of Philadelphia v. Jones, Mastbaum Area Vocational Technical School teacher Ellis Jones was recommended for termination by the Philadelphia School District after a principal’s investigation and Jones’ own admissions revealed that he was using foul language and discussing inappropriate topics, including sex, with his students.
In admitting to some of the inappropriate behavior, Jones said he was trying to build a rapport with his students.
Jones was notified by the school district on Aug. 10, 2009, that he would be recommended for termination, “effective immediately,” and that he was entitled to a hearing before the district’s school reform commission.
Although the district stopped paying Jones on Aug. 14, 2009, the hearing for which he asked was not held until April 16, 2010. In addition, the commission did not formally vote to terminate Jones until Sept. 15, 2010 - 16 months after he had been originally notified of the termination recommendation.
The commission terminated Jones retroactive to Aug. 14, 2009, but the Pennsylvania Secretary of Education moved the termination date to Dec. 15, 2010, and ordered that Jones receive the pay owed him for the period of Aug. 14, 2009, to Dec. 15, 2010.
Although the Commonwealth Court agreed that termination was warranted because “Jones’ conduct offended the moral standards of the community,” it still ordered the district to reinstate Jones’ employment, because the district had not followed proper procedure during the termination process.
“They were kind of loose with the termination procedures,” Mongillo said.
The Commonwealth Court said the commission violated provisions of the Pennsylvania School Code, because it did not pass a proper resolution stating that it had enough evidence to support the recommended discipline. Also, a letter sent to Jones notifying him of the district’s charges was not attested to by the commission’s secretary and the hearing was held later than the actual effective date set for Jones’ termination.
“The court strictly interpreted due process under the school code,” Mongillo said.
Mongillo said the docket shows that the district did file a petition asking the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to consider its appeal of the Commonwealth Court ruling reinstating Jones’ employment. In addition, Mongillo said the district could potentially request a stay of the order. If no stay is obtained, Mongillo said the district could try to put Jones on leave and then try to terminate him through the proper channels.
Mongillo said it is unfortunate that the school district could potentially be faced with paying several years of back pay to Jones, but that “it could have been avoided.”
“I don’t think any school district would want to keep an employee like this,” Mongillo said. “School districts are in a tough situation.”