Appeal from the Circuit Court of the 10th Judicial Circuit, Peoria County, Illinois No. 01-MR-126 Honorable John A. Barra Judge, Presiding
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Holdridge
Lauri Buchna, a third-grade teacher for the Illinois Valley Central Unit School District No. 321 (District), was terminated for failing to successfully remediate under Article 24A of the School Code (Code) (105 ILCS 5/24A--1 et seq. (West 1996)). She sought administrative review before a hearing officer appointed by the Illinois State Board of Education. The hearing officer affirmed the District's termination decision. Buchna then appealed to the Peoria County circuit court which confirmed the hearing officer's decision. She now brings this appeal, claiming: (1) the hearing officer applied an incorrect legal standard in upholding her termination, (2) the evidence does not support the hearing officer's decision, and (3) the circuit court's order is against the manifest weight of the evidence and contrary to law. We reverse.
Section 24A--1 of the Code "requir[es] that all certified school district employees be evaluated on a periodic basis and that the evaluations result in remedial action being taken when deemed necessary." 105 ILCS 5/24A--1 (West 1996). Buchna was evaluated during the 1997-98 school year and received a rating of "Does not Meet District Expectations." The only other rating available in the District's evaluation scheme was "Meets or Exceeds District Expectations." Because of her rating, Buchna was placed on a one-year remediation plan.
The plan called for remediation in 10 areas where Buchna had been found deficient during her evaluation. The District issued four quarterly reports during the remediation period. In its first two reports, the District gave Buchna an overall rating of "Does not Meet District Expectations." In its third report, the District failed to give an overall rating; but the fourth report again specified an overall rating of "Does not Meet District Expectations." The District thus terminated Buchna's employment, and she sought administrative review of the decision.
During the proceedings before the hearing officer, Buchna moved for a directed verdict on several grounds. One of her claims was based on subsection 24A--5(c) of the Code, which required the District to conduct its pre-remediation evaluation using three ratings: excellent, satisfactory, and unsatisfactory. 105 ILCS 5/24A--5(c) (West 1996). Since the District's evaluation scheme only used two ratings ("Meets or Exceeds District Expectations" and "Does not Meet District Expectations"), and since the ratings did not follow the statutory terminology, Buchna argued that her termination was improper because the District failed to comply with the mandatory language of subsection 24A--5(c). The hearing officer denied the motion for a directed verdict, stating that the District had substantially complied with subsection 24A--5(c). The circuit court confirmed the hearing officer's decision in its entirety, finding that the decision was neither against the manifest weight of the evidence nor contrary to law.
In her first claim, Buchna argues that the hearing officer erroneously applied a substantial compliance standard. She contends that the officer was required to "strictly construe," inter alia, "[the District's] statutory obligation to prove *** the legality of [its] evaluation plan." Of course, this claim involves a question of statutory construction. When construing a statute, our primary objective is to effectuate the legislature's intent. In re C.W., 199 Ill. 2d 198 (2002). We first turn to the statute's language--the most reliable indicator of legislative intent. Yang v. City of Chicago, 195 Ill. 2d 96 (2001). Where that language is clear and unambiguous, we apply the statute as written without resorting to other aids of construction. C.W., 199 Ill. 2d 198. Our review is de novo. C.W., 199 Ill. 2d 198.
In the instant case, the relevant statutory language appears in section 24A--5, which reads:
"Evaluation of teachers whose positions do not require administrative certification shall be conducted by an administrator qualified under Section 24A--3 *** and shall include at least the following components:
(c) rating of the teacher's performance as `excellent', `satisfactory' or `unsatisfactory'.
(f) within 30 days after completion of an evaluation rating a teacher as `unsatisfactory', development and commencement by the district *** of a remediation plan designed to correct deficiencies cited, provided the deficiencies are deemed remediable. ***
(g) participation in the remediation plan by the teacher rated `unsatisfactory', a district administrator qualified under Section 24A--3 ***, and a consulting teacher *** of the teacher who was rated `unsatisfactory', which consulting teacher is an educational employee ***, has at least 5 years' teaching experience and a reasonable familiarity with the assignment of the teacher ...