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CHARLES E. GIBBONS v. NEW CASTLE AREA SCHOOL DISTRICT (07/06/88)

decided: July 6, 1988.

CHARLES E. GIBBONS, APPELLEE,
v.
NEW CASTLE AREA SCHOOL DISTRICT, APPELLANT



Appeal from the Order of the Commonwealth Court at No. 2449 C.D. 1983, dated November 13, 1985, reversing the Order of the Court of Common Pleas of Lawrence County, at Civil Division No. 177 of 1982, M.D., by Francis X. Caiazza, J., dated August 24, 1983. Nix, C.j., and Larsen, Flaherty, McDermott, Zappala and Papadakos, JJ. Stout, J., and Hutchinson, Former J., did not participate in the consideration or decision of this case. Larsen, J., filed a dissenting opinion in which Papadakos, J., joined.

Author: Zappala

[ 518 Pa. Page 445]

OPINION

This case presents a question regarding the meaning, more precisely the scope, of Section 1125.1(c) of the Public School Code of 1949, 24 P.S. § 11-1125.1(c). That section, added to the Code by Act 1979-97, provides that "a school entity shall realign its professional staff so as to insure that more senior employes are provided with the opportunity to fill positions for which they are certificated and which are being filled by less senior employes." The New Castle Area School District appeals by allowance a Commonwealth Court order reversing an order of the Lawrence County Court of Common Pleas on the basis of Section 1125.1(c) 93 Pa. Commw. 28, 500 A.2d 922. Common Pleas Court had affirmed the school board's decision to appoint Charles Gibbons, then the principal of Benjamin Franklin Junior High School, as assistant principal of New Castle Senior High School, although the senior high school principal, who was retained in that position, had less seniority.

In June of 1982, the school board decided to close George Washington Junior High School, one of the two schools in the district serving grades 7 through 9. Franklin, the remaining junior high school, was to thereafter accommodate

[ 518 Pa. Page 446]

    all of the district's seventh and eighth grade students; the senior high school, which had previously encompassed grades 10 through 12, expanded to include the grade 9 students from both Washington and Franklin.

With the closing of Washington, two secondary administrator's positions were abolished. The board returned the two administrators with the least seniority -- the assistant principal of Franklin and the assistant principal of the senior high school -- to teaching positions. Amen Hassen and Robert Navarra, principal and assistant principal of Washington, respectively, both more senior than Gibbons, were assigned to the corresponding positions at Franklin. Gibbons was reassigned as assistant principal at the senior high school, a position carrying the same salary as principal.

At Gibbons's request, the board held a hearing to review the decision. In its adjudication affirming the reassignment, the board stated that it chose to retain Frank Dattilo as senior high school principal rather than appoint Gibbons to that position because Dattilo's success and experience as principal of the high school was important in maintaining the established educational program. Lack of administrative experience with a high school or program of similar size was thought to be detrimental to the efficient operation of the high school, especially during the transition period when the ninth grade was being added.

The board's adjudication of Gibbons's challenge was made according to the standard applicable to personnel actions under Section 1151 of the Code, 24 P.S. § 11-1151, that the action not be "arbitrary, discriminatory, or based upon improper motives." The board rejected Gibbons's argument from Section 1125.1(c), concluding that that section was inapplicable where the employee has not demonstrated that a suspension has occurred; where the employee has not demonstrated that the action was taken for any of the reasons enumerated in Section 1124 (substantial enrollment decrease in district, or in particular classes or programs, consolidation of schools, reorganization of school districts); where the employee's professional status has been unchanged;

[ 518 Pa. Page 447]

    or where the alternative realignment would disrupt an established educational program. The board also found that Gibbons, being third on the seniority list, lacked standing to raise the issue of Section 1125.1(c) to claim one of two secondary principal positions.

Following Shestack v. General Braddock Area School District, 63 Pa. Commw. 204, 437 A.2d 1059 (1981), the common pleas court rejected the Board's determination that Section 1125.1(c) applied only where the employee was suspended, but affirmed the adjudication. The court relied on Godfrey v. Penns Valley Area School District, 68 Pa. Commw. 166, 449 A.2d 765 (1982), in holding that the practicality of a realignment and its effect on the educational process within the school district must be considered in addition to seniority.

In Godfrey, the Commonwealth Court had affirmed on the basis of the trial court's opinion. The school board had suspended Godfrey, the least senior member of his department, rather than realign the entire teaching staff by suspending from other departments two teachers with even less seniority than Godfrey, reassigning two members of Godfrey's department with dual certifications out of Godfrey's department to replace the suspended teachers, and allowing Godfrey to remain. The trial court read Section 1125.1(c) to require realignment only where the complaining professional was certified to assume a position being held by a less senior professional. The court also stated in dictum that even if a more extensive realignment was ...


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