State’s largest teachers union ready to take on school districts after loss of “trial de novo” option
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Published: 24-Jul-2011

The legislative authors of a bill repealing Oklahoma's “trial de novo” provisions for school teachers say the Oklahoma Education Association’s general counsel is misinforming members of Oklahoma’s largest teachers' union about the new provisions, by asserting its strictures violate the U.S. Constitution’s Fourteenth Amendment right to due process.

"The Oklahoma Legislature does not have the authority to repeal or otherwise change the due process protections that are set forth in the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution," states OEA general counsel Richard Wilkinson in the June/July "Education Focus," the union's member newspaper. 

Also, Wilkinson’s column and another anonymously-written item in the publication remind union members of their asserted right to engage school districts in lengthy, expensive litigation. 

The references are found in the newspaper online at www.okea.org. 

Wilkinson’s legal assistant said he could not comment for this story because he would be on a lengthy vacation and she did not know when he would return.

“What teachers will no longer have after being terminated is a guaranteed new trial which effectively starts the entire process of termination over again,” said state Rep Corey Holland of Marlow. “House Bill 1380 puts the termination decision in the hands of the same folks who do the hiring. This is not an unfair standard in any way.

“In fact, it aligns with how every other public employee in our state is treated. Teachers who believe they are unjustly terminated will have the option, if they choose to pursue it, to have their case heard in a court of law just like everyone else. The Constitution of the United States has not been altered just because Oklahoma passed H.B. 1380, and any legitimate lawyer understands this fact."

In the most recent “Education Focus,” an anonymous item emphasizes that any teacher believing she or he has been wrongfully terminated retains the right to sue school districts, administrators and board members. The brief item notes, “These cases are more costly to litigate for the school district.” 

The bill means that tenured teachers will have the same rights in termination cases as probationary teachers, Wilkinson noted in his column. Because a teacher achieves tenure after teaching three years, tenure provisions formerly provided substantial, virtually automatic job security.

In his column, Wilkinson cited three to four specific instances in which a public school district may be sued – including instances where the district has failed to prove its case. He stated there are “voluminous” additional reasons to do so.

State Sen. John Ford of Bartlesville said, “The district is always subject to a suit if the district does not follow the procedures outlined in the statutes. This is as it should be.”

Oklahoma taxpayers ultimately pick up the tab for school districts’ legal costs. Highly-placed education sources contend school district litigation costs have gotten out of hand in school districts for numerous reasons.

Wilkinson said in his column that legal action against a district, administrators and school board could go on as long as 18 to 24 months, whereas a court appeal is statutorily limited to 63 days.

Sen. Ford disagreed, saying “Mr. Wilkinson talks about…. the trial de novo process to be over in 63 days.” Ford explained, “This is if there are no extensions requested and granted. In fact, many have exceeded the 63 days, some actually lasting over a year.” 

Teachers performing their jobs properly have nothing to fear, lawmakers insist. “Trial de novo” is an optional provisions and is not in place in every state where teachers' unions are powerful. 

Recently, Purcell Superintendent Tony Christian told reporters it cost the district $80,000 and several months of wrangling to terminate a former teacher who was eventually convicted of serious wrong-doing. Criminal proceedings against the individual took law enforcement two years to complete.

The new “trial de novo” law does not mean fired teachers cannot appeal terminations in a court of law. Terminated educators may use the public court system, but will have to start the process anew without automatic resource to trial court after a dismissal. 

The bill becomes law August 26, 2011. It will govern teacher termination efforts for the 2011-2012 school year and thereafter.

Wilkinson's colulmn said OEA had anticipated passage of this legislation. Thus, for several years, the union's delegates have authorized “substantial investments” in a sophisticated arsenal of tools that will virtually transform school board termination hearings into court proceedings. 

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