Mirabilio v. Regional School District 16: Reduction in Hours v. Termination of Employment

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In these fiscal times, school districts are confronted with difficult choices in restructuring their teaching workforce, with districts often having to consider the elimination of teaching positions.  A recent court case reminds us all that there is a middle ground, namely, the reduction of hours of teachers.

In Mirabilio v. Regional School District 16, 2013 WL 5436825 (D. Conn. 2013), a tenured culinary arts teacher’s position was reduced from full-time to half-time.  The teacher brought a lawsuit against her employing school district, asserting that the reduction of her position violated her rights under Connecticut’s Teacher Tenure Act  and the Due Process Clause of the United States Constitution.  The teacher asserted that she was entitled to a hearing under Connecticut’s Teacher Tenure Act, Conn. Gen. Stat. §10-151.  While it was undisputed that the Teacher Tenure Act is the sole and exclusive mechanism for terminating the contract of a teacher, the parties disagreed as to whether the Act (and its  procedural requirements and protections for those facing termination) should be followed when a tenured teaching position is reduced from full-time to half-time.

The United States District Court granted the school district’s motion to dismiss.  The court noted that although the Teacher Tenure Act provides a bevy of protections to tenured teachers facing termination, and while it creates a constitutionally protected “property interest” in continued employment for such a teacher, the reduction in hours fell short of termination and thus did not constitute a deprivation of a “property interest.”  The court relied on the fact that under Connecticut law, a teacher who is reduced from full-time to part-time employment is not considered to have been terminated from employment.  The courts have found that changes to employment status, even when accompanied by substantial reductions in salary, did not fall within the definition of “termination” under the Teacher Tenure Act and thus are not subject either to the Act’s protections or to judicial review.   Here, the culinary art’s teacher’s reassignment from a full- to half-time teaching position may have led to a substantial reduction in salary, but as the teacher’s employment contract had not been terminated within the meaning of the Teacher Tenure Act, she was not entitled to the Act’s protections and did not have a viable constitutional “due process” claim.

A teaching moment for school districts:  It is important to remember that a collective bargaining agreement could limit a school district’s discretion to reduce the hours of a tenured teacher without first non-renewing the employment of non-tenured teachers.  In addition, despite the holding in Mirabilio, a reduction to less than a half-time position might still be deemed to constitute a termination, and thus trigger the Teacher Tenure Act’s protections.  A school district, however, should be guided by its educational and programmatic needs when determining the composition of its teaching workforce, with the understanding that the actual termination/elimination of tenured teacher’s position (as opposed to a reduction in hours) will lead to “bumping rights” and/or a pre-termination hearing, as provided under the Teacher Tenure Act.