School boards and superintendents regularly find it necessary to reassign administrators, at both the school and the district office levels. Reasons may include school openings and closings, changes in school enrollment, program eliminations, as well as concerns with an administrator's effectiveness in the current assignment. In today's climate of significant budget woes, administrator reassignments also are becoming necessary due to administrative position eliminations as a cost-cutting measure. These position eliminations can result in situations where a district finds it necessary to "demote" an administrator to a position with less responsibility and less pay. The due process rights of administrators affected by such decisions has been the subject of debate and confusion.
On January 18, 2011, the South Carolina Supreme Court weighed in on the topic of administrator reassignments, concluding that administrators who are reassigned for the subsequent school year, even with a reduction in pay, are not entitled to the hearing rights provided under the Teacher Employment and Dismissal Act. In the case of Henry-Davenport v. The School District of Fairfield County, a number of district-level administrators were to be reassigned for the subsequent school year as part of an administrative reorganization. Many of the reassignments involved a reduction in salary. One such administrator, Ms. Henry-Davenport, filed a grievance over the reassignment. When the matter reached the Fairfield District Board level, the Board voted not to hear the grievance, as was within its discretion under Board policy. Ms. Henry-Davenport then filed suit alleging, among other things, that she was entitled to the same hearing rights as are granted to certified educators whose contracts are not renewed under the Employment and Dismissal Act.
As a preliminary step in the litigation process, the attorneys for the School District sought clarification from the court on the meaning of S.C. Code Ann. § 59-24-15, which addresses the issue of administrator reassignments. Section 59-24-15, a provision of the Educational Accountability Act of 1988, states that
"Certified personnel who are employed as administrators on an annual or multi-year contract will retain their rights as a teacher under the provisions of Article 3 of Chapter 19 and Article 5 of Chapter 25 of this title but no such rights are granted to the position or salary of administrator. Any such administrator who presently is under a contract granting such rights shall retain that status until the expiration of that contract."
The common interpretation of this statute has been that administrators may be reassigned to another administrative position or an instructional position, in accordance with board policy. Further, salary reductions associated with the reassignment also may be imposed. However, such salary reductions should not be implemented until the subsequent school year, after the conclusion of the current contractual period. In other words, an administrator may be reassigned immediately, with a salary reduction to be implemented for the subsequent school year, or an administrator can be informed at contract issuance time that his or her assignment and salary will change for the subsequent school year. Under board policy, reassigned administrators generally have the right to file a grievance over the reassignment, but are not guaranteed a board hearing. However, a mid-year administrative reassignment involving a salary reduction may be considered the equivalent of a position termination which could trigger hearing rights under the Employment and Dismissal Act.
Despite the passage of the Accountability Act, questions surrounding administrator reassignments continued to arise, particularly when salary reductions were involved. In the 1994 case of Johnson v. Spartanburg County School Dist. No. 7, the Supreme Court held that an administrator who was reassigned and suffered a loss in pay was entitled to the due process protections of the Employment and Dismissal Act, namely a board hearing. Earlier, in the 1984 case of Snipes v. McAndrew, the Court had ruled that administrators whose reassignments did not involve salary reductions were not entitled to any particular hearing rights. Section 59-24-15 was believed to have been passed in an effort to give districts more latitude to make administrator assignments, particularly in response to the limitations imposed by the Supreme Court's ruling in the Johnson case. With the Henry-Davenport decision, the Court has now clarified that the legislature effectively overruled Johnson by passing § 59-24-15, which specifies that administrators do not have any rights to a particular position or salary, beyond that of a teacher. Thus, an administrator may be reassigned the subsequent school year to any other position, including that of a 190-day teacher, with an accompanying salary reduction.
The Court's decision in the Henry-Davenport case is a positive development for school districts. It serves to clarify a district's authority to assign administrators on a yearly basis as best serves the needs of the district and to pay the administrator the salary that is appropriate for the position to which the administrator is assigned. Keep in mind, however, that administrators who are reassigned mid-year normally should retain their salary level for the remainder of the current school year, unless there are specific grounds warranting a demotion, and the district is prepared to provide the administrator with the equivalent of a termination hearing under the provisions of the Employment and Dismissal Act. It also should be noted that a district's reduction-in-force policy should be followed whenever an administrator is reassigned as a result of a position elimination. Should your district have any questions or issues relating to administrator reassignments, please do not hesitate to contact us.