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Nafziger v. The Board of Education of Staunton Community Unit School District No. 6 of Macoupin and Madison Counties

Court of Appeals of Illinois, Fourth District

October 9, 2019

GAYLE NAFZIGER, Petitioner-Appellee,
v.
THE BOARD OF EDUCATION OF STAUNTON COMMUNITY UNIT SCHOOL DISTRICT NO. 6 OF MACOUPIN AND MADISON COUNTIES, Respondent-Appellant.

          Appeal from the Circuit Court of Macoupin County, No. 16-MR-69; the Hon. Kenneth R. Deihl, Judge, presiding.

          Attorneys for Appellant: Susan E. Nicholas, of Robbins, Schwartz, Nicholas, Lifton & Taylor, Ltd., of Champaign, and Dennis L. Weedman, of Robbins, Schwartz, Nicholas, Lifton & Taylor, Ltd., of Collinsville, for appellant.

          Attorneys for Appellee: Rick Verticchio, of Verticchio & Verticchio, of Carlinville, for appellee.

          PRESIDING JUSTICE HOLDER WHITE delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion. Justices Cavanagh and Harris concurred in the judgment and opinion.

          OPINION

          HOLDER WHITE, PRESIDING JUSTICE

         ¶ 1 Respondent, the Board of Education of Staunton Community Unit School District No. 6 of Macoupin and Madison Counties, employed petitioner, Gayle Nafziger, as a schoolteacher for 32 years. After the 2015-16 school year, due to a reduction in force (RIF), respondent honorably dismissed petitioner.

         ¶ 2 Petitioner then filed a civil complaint for declaratory judgment, alleging, based on her summative evaluation performance ratings from the 2014-15 school term, respondent improperly placed her in grouping two on the sequence of honorable dismissal list, which resulted in her honorable dismissal. Following a bench trial, the circuit court entered declaratory judgment in favor of petitioner. The circuit court stated it based its decision on the application of section 24-12(b)(2) of the School Code (Code) (105 ILCS 5/24-12(b)(2) (West 2014)) and "the ratings received in each evaluation of proficient."

         ¶ 3 On appeal, respondent argues (1) the circuit court erred in its interpretation of section 24-12(b) of the Code (id. § 24-12(b)) and (2) the circuit court's decision was against the manifest weight of the evidence. For the following reasons, we reverse.

         ¶ 4 I. BACKGROUND

         ¶ 5 A. Procedural History

         ¶ 6 In July 2016, petitioner filed a civil complaint for declaratory judgment, alleging, based on her summative evaluation performance ratings from the 2014-15 school term, respondent improperly placed her in grouping two on the sequence of honorable dismissal list for a RIF, resulting in her honorable dismissal. Petitioner argued that under section 24-12(b) of the Code (id), respondent should have placed her in grouping three on the sequence of honorable dismissal list thereby saving her from dismissal.

         ¶ 7 The matter proceeded to a bench trial held over two consecutive days in December 2017. Prior to trial, the parties entered a stipulation stating, "The parties hereby stipulate that if GAYLE NAFZIGER should have properly been placed in Group 3 as a result of a proficient evaluation, then based on her certifications and years of seniority, she would not have been subject to Honorable Dismissal by Reduction in Force." (Emphasis in original.) Below, we summarize the evidence presented at trial.

         ¶ 8 B. Petitioner's Bench Trial

         ¶ 9 1. New Evaluation System

         ¶ 10 In 2010, the Governor signed into law Public Act 96-861, titled the "Performance Evaluation Reform Act of 2010" (commonly known as PERA), implementing a new teacher evaluation system in Illinois. See Pub. Act 96-861 (eff. Jan. 15, 2010) (amending 105 ILCS 5/24A-5). Under PERA, administrators formally and informally observe teachers and award a summative performance evaluation rating based on four ratings, a change from three ratings. 105 ILCS 5/24A-5 (West 2010). The four ratings include, "excellent," "proficient," "needs improvement," and "unsatisfactory." Id. § 24A-5(e).

         ¶ 11 Respondent school district evaluates and awards tenured teachers a summative performance evaluation rating once every two years unless they receive a "needs improvement" or "unsatisfactory" rating, in which case respondent school district evaluates a teacher the following year. See 105 ILCS 5/24A-5 (West 2014). Respondent school district implemented PERA in September 2012.

         ¶ 12 2. Petitioner s Honorable Dismissal

         ¶ 13 Petitioner, a schoolteacher in contractual continued service (tenure) with respondent school district, taught for 32 years before her honorable dismissal. During the 2011- 12 school term-school term being July 1 to the following June 30-petitioner's principal, Mark Skerticher, awarded her a summative performance evaluation rating of "excellent" under the old evaluation system. During the 2012-13 school term, respondent school district conducted no evaluation of petitioner due to her status as tenured and her rating of "excellent" the prior year. During the 2013-14 school term, a new principal, Brooke Wiemers, observed petitioner based on PERA and awarded petitioner a summative performance evaluation rating of "needs improvement."

         ¶ 14 After receiving a "needs improvement" summative performance evaluation rating, Wiemers placed petitioner on a professional development plan as required by the Code. See id. § 24A-5(h). The professional development plan stated:

"The teacher will be evaluated during the 2014-2015 school year as required by the Code. The District expects that more than the minimum number of evaluations will be conducted on both an announced and unannounced basis. The [a]dministrators may conduct observations, have input into evaluations [, ] and may assist in improvement tasks. The administrators will observe lessons being taught, review lesson plans when specified, conduct conferences as needed [, ] and assist with teaching ideas.
[Petitioner] must be rated as proficient to be reinstated to the regular tenured teacher ...

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