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BERTIE L. LOMAS v. BOARD SCHOOL DIRECTORS NORTHWESTERN LEHIGH SCHOOL DISTRICT (05/07/82)

decided: May 7, 1982.

BERTIE L. LOMAS, PETITIONER
v.
BOARD OF SCHOOL DIRECTORS OF NORTHWESTERN LEHIGH SCHOOL DISTRICT, RESPONDENT



Appeal from the Order of the Secretary of Education in the case of Bertie L. Lomas v. Northwestern Lehigh School District, Teacher Tenure Appeal, No. 5-80.

COUNSEL

Thomas E. Weaver, Jr., Weaver, Mosebach, Piosa & Hixson, P.C., for petitioner.

John E. Freund, III, King, McCardle & Herman, for respondent.

Judges Rogers, Craig and MacPhail, sitting as a panel of three. Opinion by Judge Rogers. This decision was reached prior to the resignation of Judge Mencer.

Author: Rogers

[ 66 Pa. Commw. Page 423]

Bertie L. Lomas here seeks review of the action of the Board of School Directors of the Northwestern Lehigh School District, affirmed by the Secretary of Education,*fn1 demoting her from the position of elementary school principal to that of classroom teacher.

The factual circumstances attending this demotion, which we will explore in some detail below, are contained in fourteen volumes of notes of testimony made before the board during thirteen public sessions conducted between the end of January and the end of February, 1980. Mrs. Lomas commenced her employment with the school district in September, 1974, as the principal of the Weisenberg Elementary School. Prior to the 1974-1975 school year the administrative duties at Weisenberg were performed by a group of six teachers holding the title of grade chairperson or team leader who, through an elected team coordinator, reported to the Superintendent of Schools, Dr. Harry Burger. From the superintendent's annual evaluations introduced as exhibits, it is clear that at the time of those evaluations he believed Mrs. Lomas' performance as principal during the first five years of her tenure to have been satisfactory on the whole. Criticism contained in the evaluations of her conduct during this period is universally mild although a repeated

[ 66 Pa. Commw. Page 424]

    theme in this regard is the superintendent's concern that Mrs. Lomas had not done all that was necessary to coordinate the program at Weisenberg with that of the other district elementary school -- Northwestern Elementary -- and that she ought to have more actively included other professional employees at Weisenberg in her process of decision making and in the development of curriculum and program.

These criticisms, although apparently of no great moment to the evaluator when made, proved to be prescient in the 1979-1980 school year. During the first week of the school year, in September, 1979, Mrs. Lomas informed the teaching staff at Weisenberg that the grouping of students for reading instruction, in past years accomplished by the teachers in the first two weeks of classes, had been done by Mrs. Lomas and her secretarial staff during the summer months. Mrs. Lomas also stated at this time that the grouping procedure used and the level of instructional materials assigned to each group constituted a marked departure from past practice and might be expected to result in a gap in the pedagogical exposure of some students and the resultant need for additional efforts on the part of the reading teachers in order to supply certain skills and vocabulary words otherwise omitted. These measures were necessary, in Mrs. Lomas' view, in order to create in students the expectation that great educational progress was possible; an expectation that was then hoped to bring about its own fulfillment. The particular method chosen to achieve this result was both simple and direct: the regrouping of students and the reassignment of instructional materials so as to ensure that each pupil was instructed at the highest level of which he or she was capable as indicated by standardized test scores and previous achievement.

[ 66 Pa. Commw. Page 425]

In the next several weeks the teachers experienced, as they described it, insurmountable difficulties in the use of the assigned materials with their reading groups. In many instances the materials were so greatly in advance of the students' level of actual ability that no progress could be made.

Mrs. Lomas was then approached by a number of teachers with regard to these problems and while she was willing, albeit reluctantly, to permit individual pupil reassignments and even, on petition of the entire first grade professional staff, to permit a large scale retreat in the matter of materials assigned to one group, these ad hoc measures proved, in the opinion of the teachers, to be insufficient. At the suggestion of Mrs. Lomas, parents were enlisted to provide supplemental home instruction in the nature of vocabulary drill and to this end a vocabulary list and "flash card" teaching aids were sent home with the children.

In the early days of October, 1979, Dr. Burger, according to his testimony, received an unusually large number of telephone calls from parents expressing concern and displeasure with respect to the reading and mathematics programs at Weisenberg. On October 9, 1979, Dr. Burger met with Mrs. Lomas and Mr. Paul Bien, principal of Northwestern Elementary, to discuss the procedures used in grouping students for instructional purposes. Dissatisfied with the responses he received during the course of this discussion, Dr. Burger informed both principals that he would be assuming a more active role in the supervision of the elementary programs and would be visiting both schools in the near future. By memo to Dr. Burger dated two days later, Mrs. Lomas expressed her view that Dr. Burger's critical remarks were "completely out of line" and requested an opportunity

[ 66 Pa. Commw. Page 426]

    to meet with the school board. At this time Mrs. Lomas also demanded that a written job description be prepared by the superintendent describing in detail the duties of her position.

Thereafter, Dr. Burger visited Weisenberg on several occasions in order to observe the various programs in operation, consulted individually with teachers on these occasions and, as a result of these observations and consultations, scheduled for the 16th and 22nd of October meetings with the kindergarten through third grade teachers and with the fourth through sixth grade teachers respectively. These meetings were conducted at the administrative offices and, although she was aware that they were taking place, Mrs. Lomas was not invited to the meetings and did not attend. At these meetings the professional staff of Weisenberg were invited to discuss with the superintendent their reservations concerning the program at that school as well as impediments they had experienced to maintaining a "positive teaching climate."

During the course of a public meeting of the board on October 17, 1979, Imogene Dietrich, the mother of a first grade student at Weisenberg, spoke at some length with regard to the difficulties she was facing in the attempt to carry out the program of home vocabulary drill instituted in September. In Mrs. Dietrich's opinion this program was ill-considered and seriously flawed in its conception because it relied on untrained parents to carry on the complex task of beginning reading instruction and because it asked parents to teach written vocabulary items before their children had received sufficient instruction in the constituent parts of those items; for example words containing the letters "c" and "h" in sequence were required to be taught at home by parents before

[ 66 Pa. Commw. Page 427]

    their children had received classroom instruction in the phonetic effect of the sequential combination of the symbols and their associated sounds. As a result, the main accomplishment of the program of home vocabulary instruction, in Mrs. Dietrich's experience, was frustration on the part of both parents and children. At this meeting of the school board Mrs. Lomas suggested that Mrs. Dietrich speak to the teacher involved and that she might profit from a visit to the school.

On October 19, 1979, nine members of the Weisenberg professional staff signed a letter addressed to Dr. Burger informing him,

     that conditions exist in the Weisenberg school which act as deterrents to successful teaching. We regretfully submit that if these conditions cannot be changed within the near future, it is our intent to apply for building reassignment.

Mrs. Lomas was not informed at the time of this letter.

In the evening of October 30, 1979, Dr. Burger and the board met for several hours with a group of Weisenberg teachers and parents of children enrolled in that school to discuss the now controversial reading program as well as the similar innovations that had been instituted with respect to pupil grouping for mathematics instruction. Mrs. Lomas' conduct and performance of her duties as principal was also discussed at this meeting. The following day Mrs. Lomas was notified by Dr. Burger that, as she had requested, she was to address the board on November 2, 1979. At this meeting Mrs. Lomas criticized the manner in which Dr. Burger exercised his district wide authority, and expressed her concern with respect to what she perceived to be inconsistencies between the curricula and programs at the two elementary schools and between those of the elementary

[ 66 Pa. Commw. Page 428]

    schools and the junior and senior high schools. The board then questioned her on the matter of professional staff morale at Weisenberg as well as the programmatic concerns and reservations recently expressed by both parents and teachers.

On November 13, 1979, the board met in special session and, on the recommendation of Dr. Burger, resolved to appoint a committee of the board to investigate the performance of Mrs. Lomas as principal of Weisenberg and to request that she consider taking a paid leave of absence pending the conclusion of this investigation. One week later Mrs. Lomas met with the committee and, following a discussion of the complaints that had been raised concerning her conduct, refused to take a leave of absence.

On December 8, 1979, the board, again in special session and on the recommendation of the superintendent, voted unanimously to transfer Mrs. Lomas to the position of principal at Northwestern Elementary School with no reduction in salary or other benefits of employment. Three days later Mrs. Lomas reported to her new assignment at Northwestern and at 8:30 a.m. the entire complement of tenured professional staff at that school, in protest against her transfer, left the building and refused to return to their posts until approximately 11:30 a.m. The next evening the board, after separate lengthy meetings with thirty-eight members of the Northwestern staff and with Mrs. Lomas, resolved to transfer the petitioner "to a teaching position within her field of certification effective January 2, 1980, and to follow the necessary legal procedures." Thereafter, by letter dated December 14, 1979, Mrs. Lomas received a written statement of the charges lodged against her related to her conduct as principal as well as a request that she consent to the proposed demotion and a statement

[ 66 Pa. Commw. Page 429]

    to the effect that should she fail to so consent she then had the right under the Public School Code of 1949 to a public hearing before the board in which evidence related to the charges would be presented. By letter dated December 27, 1979, Mrs. Lomas notified the board that she did not consent to the demotion and that she requested a hearing on the matter.

As we have indicated, at the close of the hearing the board voted to demote Mrs. Lomas to a classroom teaching position which action of the board was affirmed on appeal by the Secretary of Education. Where, as in this case, the Secretary has taken no additional evidence, this Court must review the decision of the school authorities to determine whether constitutional rights have been violated or an error of law committed, and whether the necessary factual findings of ...


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