Appeal from the Order of the Court of Common Pleas of Montgomery County in case of Cora Lee Phillippi, Phyllis Catz, Cheryl Schlosser, Charles Knipe, et al. v. School District of Springfield Township, No. 75-11391.
Richard W. Rogers, with him Rogers, King & Cole, for appellants.
Charles Potash, with him, of counsel, Wisler, Pearlstine, Talone, Craig & Garrity, for appellees.
President Judge Bowman and Judges Crumlish, Jr. and Wilkinson, Jr., sitting as a panel of three. Opinion by President Judge Bowman.
[ 28 Pa. Commw. Page 187]
By resolutions adopted on April 21, 1975, and May 22, 1975, the Board of School Directors (Board) of the School District of Springfield Township, Montgomery County, provided for a reduction in the teaching staff after the conclusion of the 1974-1975 school year, due to a substantial decrease in pupil enrollment. Pursuant to these resolutions, six tenured professional employes, three of whom were employed part time, were suspended pursuant to Sections 1124 and 1125 of the Public School Code of 1949 (Code)*fn1 and the contracts of fourteen temporary professional employes were not renewed.
At the request of the affected employes, the Board conducted a hearing on May 29, 1975, and thereafter issued an adjudication upholding the reduction in staff. Ten of the employes then appealed to the
[ 28 Pa. Commw. Page 188]
Montgomery County Court of Common Pleas pursuant to Section 7 of the Local Agency Law, Act of December 2, 1968, P.L. 1133, 53 P.S. § 11307.*fn2 Since no record of the hearing before the Board was made, the court below elected to conduct a hearing de novo pursuant to Section 8 of the Local Agency Law, 53 P.S. § 11308.*fn3
Nine of the ten appellants below have now appealed to this Court. Of these nine, one is a full-time tenured professional employe, two are part-time tenured professional employes and six are temporary professional employes.*fn4
Appellants' arguments focus into two major issues: (1) was there a substantial decrease in pupil enrollment sufficient to justify the suspensions and
[ 28 Pa. Commw. Page 189]
terminations involved? and (2) if so, was the manner of selecting those employes to be suspended or terminated proper and in accordance with the Code? We note that our scope of review is limited by Section 8 of the Local Agency Law and we must affirm the Board and the court below unless we find a violation of constitutional rights, an error of law or manifest abuse of discretion, or that a necessary finding of fact is not supported by substantial evidence. Gabriel v. Trinity Area School District, 22 Pa. Commonwealth Ct. 620, 350 A.2d 203 (1976).
Appellants first argue that there was insufficient competent evidence to determine whether a decrease in enrollment had occurred and that if such decrease did occur, it was not "substantial" enough to justify the suspensions and terminations in question. Specifically, appellants object that some of the enrollment records admitted were not signed, that some were in pencil or ink rather than typewritten, and that there was insufficient evidence as to a custodian of the records or the regularity of their entry.
We have carefully reviewed the testimony of the superintendent of the school district with regard to the records of enrollment and how they were compiled. We agree with the court below that while these records left something to be desired, they did qualify as business records and did establish a decrease in enrollment.*fn5
[ 28 Pa. Commw. Page 190]
With respect to whether this decrease was "substantial" within the meaning of Section 1124 of the Code, we note that there is not and cannot be a precise definition of what is a "substantial" decrease sufficient to justify a given number of job eliminations. This is an area in which school boards must exercise discretion and board action will not be disturbed absent a showing that such discretion was abused, or that the action was arbitrary, based on a misconception of law or ignorance of facts. Board of School Directors of the School District of Scranton v. Roberts, 13 Pa. Commonwealth Ct. 464, 320 A.2d 141 (1974); Smith v. Board of School Directors of The Harmony Area School District (hereinafter Harmony), 16 Pa. Commonwealth Ct. 175, 328 A.2d 883 (1974). Just as we found a decrease of 114 students over a ten year period to be "substantial" enough to justify the suspensions in Harmony, supra, we find that a decrease of 486 students over a five year period (or 661 students over a six year period, if the 1975-76 projections are considered) is "substantial" under any definition of the term and is sufficient to justify the action taken in this case.*fn6
On this same issue, appellants make an additional argument with specific reference to the non-renewal of the contract of appellant Edgerton, a school nurse. Appellants contend that the Superintendent, in determining that her services were no longer required because of decrease in enrollment, did not take into account the fact that the school district provides nursing services to private and parochial schools in the area as well as to its own students. The Board responds that Section 1402(a.1) of the Code, 24 P.S. § 14-1402(a.1),
[ 28 Pa. Commw. Page 191]
only requires that the number of pupils under the care of each school nurse not exceed 1500 and that, in this case, the pupils, including private and parochial students, assigned to each of the five nurses remaining after Nurse Edgerton was terminated, did not exceed that figure. While we agree with appellants that Section 1402(a.1) does not mandate that there be no more than one nurse for each 1500 students, we reiterate that this is an area in which the Board must exercise discretion. Under these facts, we can find no error of law or abuse of discretion in the decision not to renew Nurse Edgerton's contract.
The more difficult issue in this case is whether the Board properly determined which teachers were to be suspended or terminated. This requires a rather extensive review of the record and a careful analysis of the relevant provisions of the Code.
Section 1125 of the Code, 24 P.S. § 11-1125, outlines the procedure for suspending professional employes when a decrease in staff is necessary:
(a) Whenever a board of school directors decreases the size of the staff of professional employes, the suspensions to be made shall be determined by the the [sic] district superintendent on the basis of efficiency rank determined by ratings made in accordance with standards and regulations, determined by rating cards prepared by the Department of Public Instruction, as required by section one thousand one hundred twenty-three of this act. It shall be the duty of boards of school directors to cause to be established a permanent record system, containing ratings for each professional employe employed within the district. . . .
(b) In cases in which suspensions are to be made, professional employes shall be retained on the basis of ...