County Superior Court
Plaintiff: Jeffrey D. Sowa, Esq.
Defendant: Sara A. Rapport, Esq.; Paul V. Sullivan, Esq.
McKenney (Ms. McKenney) seeks judicial review of the April
14, 2014 decision of the Board of Education (Board) which
upheld the Barrington School Committee's (Committee)
decision to terminate Ms. McKenney's tenured employment.
The Court exercises jurisdiction pursuant to G.L. 1956
§§ 42-35-15, et seq. For the reasons set
forth herein, this Court affirms the Board's decision.
September of 2002, Ms. McKenney was employed as a teacher by
the Barrington School Department. She spent the next ten
years in the Barrington School District teaching United
States and World History courses to high school students at
the Barrington High School in Barrington, Rhode Island (High
School). See Tr. 5:20-24, Aug. 1, 2012. She became
tenured at the High School and received top evaluations for
her teaching and incurred no disciplinary action. See
id. at 8:8-19.
January of 2011, Ms. McKenney disseminated a study guide to
her students outlining the material that would be tested on
her midterm examination. See id. at 6:10-24. Ms.
McKenney was confronted by the school's administrators
indicating that study guides are a part of the High
School's professional learning community (PLC) and
therefore should be the product of a collaborative effort of
the entire History Department. Then on June 17, 2011, Ms.
McKenney allegedly directed two of her students, via the use
of both verbal and nonverbal communication, to the correct
answers on a final retake examination-conduct alleged to be
in violation of Part 3 of the Regulations Governing the
Certification of Educators in Rhode Island, which has been
adopted by the Board of Elementary and Secondary
Education. See Tr. 7:5-24, Aug. 1, 2012.
Such conduct was allegedly observed by Nicole Varone
(Ms. Varone), the Assistant Principal at the High School, and
Lindsey Wengloski (Ms. Wengloski), a teacher at the High
School. See Tr. 7:5-24, Aug. 1, 2012. The reported
misconduct was also confirmed by the two students.
Id. While partaking in such conduct, Ms. McKenney
allegedly left her anthropology students in another portion
of the building-unattended and without the appropriate
supervision-and therefore further violated the High
School's policies. Id. at 99:15-24.
result, in December of 2011, the Committee terminated Ms.
McKenney's employment with the school district on the
basis of the study guide, the cheating event, and any related
misconduct. Id. at 7:5-24. Thereafter, the Committee
held a post termination de novo hearing in May of
2012. Id. The Committee upheld its decision and
terminated Ms. McKenney's employment on June 6, 2012.
15, 2012, Ms. McKenney appealed the Committee's decision
to the Commissioner of the Rhode Island Department of
Elementary and Secondary Education (Commissioner). The
Commissioner appointed Forest Avila as the Hearing Officer
(Hearing Officer), who heard the matter de novo on
August 1, September 5, and October 11 of 2012. On August 28,
2013, the Commissioner issued a decision upholding the
Committee's termination. See Comm'r of Educ.
Decision, Aug. 28, 2013. In regards to the study guide
incident, the Commissioner reasoned that Ms. McKenney's
actions were neither malicious nor constituted
insubordination, as the High School has no written policy on
the dissemination of materials for use by students in
preparing for examinations. Furthermore, the High School
permits teachers to take their own approach in preparing
students for examinations. Id. at 6. Therefore, the
Commissioner found that the study guide incident alone did
not establish good and just cause to terminate Ms.
McKenney's employment. Id. In regards to the
makeup final examination, however, the Commissioner found
that Ms. McKenney's actions were equivalent to providing
the correct answers to her two students and thus constituted
cheating, which was in violation of the High School's
policy. Id. As a result, the Commissioner concluded
that there was good and just cause for Ms. McKenney's
dismissal, even as a tenured teacher. Id. at 7. The
Commissioner denied and dismissed Ms. McKenney's appeal.
Ms. McKenney appealed the Commissioner's decision to the
Board of Education. See Bd. of Educ. Decision, Apr.
15, 2014 (Board's Decision). In her appeal to the Board,
Ms. McKenney asserted that because the attorney who
represents the Committee is from the same law firm as the
attorney that represents both the Rhode Island Department of
Elementary and Secondary Education and the Commissioner, a
conflict of interest existed. Id. Ms. McKenney
further argued that there was insufficient evidence to
support the Commissioner's finding that she aided the two
students in cheating on their retake examination. See
id. Conversely, the Committee argued that the Board
should uphold the Commissioner's ruling that Ms.
McKenney's conduct pertaining to the makeup examination
provided good and just cause to terminate her, and reverse
the Commissioner's finding that the study guide incident
did not provide good and just cause for Ms. McKenney's
termination. Id. On April 15, 2014, the Board issued
a decision affirming the Commissioner's decision.
2, 2014, Ms. McKenney timely appealed the Board's
Decision to the Superior Court, asserting that the decision
is (1) in violation of applicable statutory provisions; (2)
affected by other error or law; (3) clearly erroneous in view
of the reliable, probative, and substantial evidence on the
whole record; and (4) arbitrary or capricious or
characterized by abuse of discretion or clearly unwarranted
exercise of discretion.
Superior Court exercises jurisdiction over appeals from the
Board pursuant to § 42-35-15(g) of the Rhode Island
Administrative Procedures Act, which provides as follows:
"The court shall not substitute its judgment for that of
the agency as to the weight of the evidence on questions of
fact. The court may affirm the decision of the agency or
remand the case for further proceedings, or it may reverse or
modify the decision if substantial rights of the appellant
have been prejudiced ...