Historically, school officials in New York State have been apprehensive about engaging in the Education Law section 3020-a disciplinary process. The procedure to remove or otherwise discipline tenured teachers or administrators often is perceived as both time-consuming and expensive. Many districts have had 3020-a proceedings that dragged on for months or years yet failed to achieve the desired outcome. Recent changes have streamlined the process. Last year the Legislature removed some of the most glaring flaws in the law, and this year the State Education Department (SED) launched an electronic case management system.
Perhaps the most significant change is that now evidence may not be introduced more than 125 days after charges are filed. More than any other statutory change, this limit has helped ensure that disciplinary hearings do not languish. As a result, more cases are reaching settlements earlier in the process, and hearing officers are rendering decisions within four to six months of the initiation of charges.
Meanwhile, SED is using TEACH, a web-based personnel data system, to provide a common way for parties to track the progress of 3020-a cases. In the past, filings and communications between the parties and SED occurred by personal service and U.S. mail. For charges filed on or after April 1, 2013, however, the 3020-a process is being administered electronically through TEACH.
All parties associated with a 3020-a proceeding are required to have a TEACH account. This includes the school district, the attorneys, the hearing officers and court reporters. Using TEACH, school district personnel create a 3020-a case account by entering the basic case information, such as the teacher’s name, the type of case charges and the attorney or law firm representing the district. As various parties move the process along, TEACH generates emails to keep all parties informed. Parties are able to access the same information in the TEACH database. A calendar function tracks items such as hearing dates. Parties also upload to TEACH various documents ranging from the statement of charges at the beginning of the process to the hearing officer’s decision at the end. For those cases that are resolved without a hearing, TEACH also provides the district with the ability to close out the case with a resolution withdrawing the charges.
To help parties comply with a new 125-day maximum for submitting evidence, TEACH sends parties emails 15 days before the deadline. The parties must work to conclude the hearing within the timeline or seek an extension for extraordinary circumstances.
The changes in the 3020-a process make it more important than ever for district administrators to take appropriate steps and gather information whenever a personnel situation could lead to disciplinary action. This includes performing a thorough investigation that carefully documents suspected misconduct that serves as the basis for 3020-a charges and consulting with counsel on witnesses and documentary evidence. While this is necessary to evaluate the merits of a case, it is also essential to have all of this information reviewed and prepared prior to bringing charges because the new time line does not allow much flexibility to gather new evidence or interview witnesses.
It is important to note that evidence not available at the beginning of the process will, in all likelihood, not be able to be used during the hearing. Districts should be coordinating their potential cases with counsel at the outset to ensure the charges are thoroughly investigated and there are no evidentiary surprises.
For each 3020-a case, districts should designate one employee, usually the district clerk, as the individual responsible for managing the matter in TEACH. That person should receive training on the 3020-a components of TEACH and, if possible, have the opportunity to discuss the case as it unfolds with the district attorney and other relevant parties.
Preparation, planning and coordination have always been necessary for a successful 3020-a proceeding. The statutory amendments to 3020-a and SED’s use of an electronic case management system make the focus on preparation and planning even more critical. Districts that are careful and diligent in their investigation and evaluation of tenured teacher misconduct, and who coordinate effectively with counsel, are likely to be pleasantly surprised with the changes to the 3020-a process.
Members of the New York State Association of School Attorneys represent school boards and school districts.
This article was written by Colleen Heinrich and Heather Cole of Ferrara, Fiorenza, Larrison, Barrett & Reitz, P.C.