Commissioner upholds transfer of teachers by superintendent-receiver
On Board Online • January 22, 2018
By Kimberly A. Fanniff
Senior Staff Counsel
The commissioner of education recently issued a decision interpreting the authority of a superintendent-receiver to supersede actions of a board of education.
In Appeal of Williams, a school superintendent who is also the superintendent-receiver for the district's struggling middle school challenged a board resolution that imposed a moratorium on involuntary teacher transfers, the district's policy on teacher transfers as well as other board directives regarding transfers.
Education Law section 211-f designates a school superintendent as a receiver in charge of developing and implementing an intervention plan for a school identified by the State Education Department as struggling or persistently struggling.
A receiver is vested with broad authority including but not limited to "the power to supersede any decision policy or regulation . of the board of education . that in the sole judgment of the receiver conflicts with the school intervention plan."
Subsequent to the school board's adoption of the moratorium resolution, the superintendent issued directives transferring six teachers. She informed the board of the transfers and explained her reasons, adding that she was exercising her authority as receiver to supersede the board's moratorium on transfers.
Two of the teachers ignored the superintendent's directive, reassigning them to the receivership school; they had received letters issued by the board advising them to disregard the transfers.
The superintendent argued that the board moratorium violated Education Law section 2508, which provides superintendents of small city school districts the authority to transfer teachers from one school to another or from one grade or course of study to another and to report immediately such transfers to the board for its "consideration and action." The commissioner agreed and stated that this authority has been held by the courts to be absolute in absence of contractual provisions otherwise or of malice, bad faith, gross error or prejudice.
The commissioner addressed the question of what it means for a superintendent's transfer decision to be subject to "consideration and action" by a board of education. She said that although a board retains authority to deliberate and act after it receives notice of a teacher transfer, it cannot circumvent a superintendent's authority to order such transfers in the first instance. Accordingly, the commissioner annulled the board's resolution establishing the moratorium on involuntary transfers.
The commissioner also ruled on how the superintendent's status as a receiver limited the board's options regarding transfers to or from a school in receivership. She found that the board's letters advising teachers to disregard the transfers unlawfully interfered with the superintendent's powers as receiver to supersede a board's decision
The commissioner explained that a receiver may invoke the power to supersede as long as proper procedure is followed. The receiver must notify the board of education in writing at least 10 business days prior to the effective date of the superseding of the specific decision, policy or regulation. In the written notice, a receiver must explain the reasons for the supersession, the specific decision, policy or regulation that will replace the one that shall be superseded and the time period during which the supersession will remain in effect.
The commissioner determined that the superintendent properly followed the required procedures in this case. As for the rationale for the transfers, the superintendent had explained that the teachers' skill sets and certifications matched the instructional needs of the receivership school. The commissioner determined the transfers were directly linked to the school intervention plan, which had identified excessive teacher absences and turnover as a concern. Accordingly, the board's actions barring involuntary transfers conflicted with the school intervention plan by prohibiting the superintendent from addressing shortages and staffing at the receivership school.
The commissioner was unpersuaded by the board's arguments that the challenged transfers would "eviscerate" resources from every other district school and were not in the best interests of the school district. According to the commissioner, the statute sets forth only two limitations on a receiver's supersession powers: the action must be directly linked to the school intervention plan and cannot relate to a superintendent's employment status. The commissioner declined to read further exceptions into the language of the statute.
While upholding the superintendent's authority to supersede board resolutions, the commissioner nevertheless declined to void the district's policy on teacher transfers. The superintendent argued the language of the policy permitted a board to unilaterally effectuate teacher transfers. However, the language of the policy specifically provided transfers were to be carried out within the provisions of state law and negotiated contracts. The commissioner explained any transfers under the policy are thus subject to applicable laws and the policy is legally valid.
The case represents the first time the commissioner has ruled on a question involving the powers of superintendents as receivers. This decision provides guidance to school districts on how the commissioner of education views this section of law.