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McKenney v. Barrington School Committee

Superior Court of Rhode Island

July 14, 2016

KELLY McKENNEY, Petitioner,
v.
BARRINGTON SCHOOL COMMITTEE, and THE RHODE ISLAND BOARD OF EDUCATION FOR ELEMENTARY AND SECONDARY EDUCATION, Respondents.

         Providence County Superior Court

          For Plaintiff: Jeffrey D. Sowa, Esq.

          For Defendant: Sara A. Rapport, Esq.; Paul V. Sullivan, Esq.

          DECISION

          LICHT, J.

         Kelly 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.

         I

         Facts and Travel

         In 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.

         In late 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[1] of the Regulations Governing the Certification of Educators in Rhode Island, which has been adopted[2] by the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.[3] See Tr. 7:5-24, Aug. 1, 2012. Such conduct[4] 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.

         As a 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. Id.

         On June 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[5] 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[6] for Ms. McKenney's dismissal, even as a tenured teacher. Id. at 7. The Commissioner denied and dismissed Ms. McKenney's appeal. Id.

         Thereafter, 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. Id.

         On May 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.

         II

         Standard of Review

         The 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 ...

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