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Purcell v. Reading School District

Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania

July 14, 2017

Dr. Carlinda Purcell, Appellant
Reading School District

          Argued: June 5, 2017



          PATRICIA A. McCULLOUGH, Judge.

         Dr. Carlinda Purcell (Purcell) appeals from a June 21, 2016 order of the Court of Common Pleas of Berks County (trial court), which affirmed an adjudication of the Reading School District (District) terminating Purcell from her position as District Superintendent.

         Facts and Procedural History

         On March 28, 2012, the District appointed Purcell to a five-year term as Superintendent commencing July 1, 2012. (Reproduced Record (R.R.) at 292-300, 835, 858.) That appointment was confirmed in a contract between the District and Purcell dated April 11, 2012. (R.R. at 292-300.) Purcell, however, began her duties as Acting Superintendent after March 28, 2012, on a per diem basis. (R.R. at 835.) On February 1, 2013, at the request of the District's School Board (Board), Assistant District Solicitor John Stott sent Purcell a letter about the Board's "concerns with your performance." (R.R. at 442-43.) Discipline was neither threatened nor mentioned; the letter concluded with "an offer to work together to achieve your goals for the Reading School District." (R.R. at 443.)

         On May 20, 2013, Mr. Stott sent Purcell another letter, styled as a "written reprimand, " focusing on different concerns from the previous letter, this time homing in on the District's budget process and alleging that Purcell was not complying with Board directives regarding the budget. (R.R. at 444-45.)

         On July 3, 2013, Mr. Stott sent Purcell a second letter of reprimand, voicing more concerns about the budget process and suspending her without pay for the period of July 8 through July 12, 2013, with a direction that Purcell meet with the Board Evaluation Committee on July 15, 2013. (R.R. at 446-47.)

         Subsequently, the Board sent Purcell and/or her legal counsel "Loudermill" letters, that is, written letters notifying Purcell of pending discipline and of her right to appear before the Board and respond, pursuant to the mandate of the United States Supreme Court in Cleveland Board of Education v. Loudermill, 470 U.S. 532, 105 S.Ct. 1487, 84 L.Ed.2d 494 (1985). Those letters were dated September 5, 2013 (for a hearing on September 12, 2013), and October 16, 2013 (for a hearing on October 23, 2013). (R.R. at 168, 276-77.)

         The letter of November 1, 2013 (for a hearing on November 5, 2013), was not a Loudermill notice but rather constituted a Notice of Right to Hearing and Statement of Charges, along with a recommendation to terminate. (R.R. at 160-62.)

         After Purcell and her lawyer did not appear for the hearing which had been set for November 5, 2013, the Board continued the hearing to a date not specified in the record, but neither Purcell nor her lawyer was able to attend that rescheduled hearing. The Board denied the request for another continuance, held a hearing on November 19, 2013, and terminated Purcell "on or about November 26, 2013." (Trial court op. at 2.)

         Purcell appealed to the trial court, which issued an order on April 22, 2014 (entered the following day), holding that the Board improperly denied Purcell's request for a continuance, and remanding to the Board to conduct a new hearing. (R.R. at 163.)

         New hearings were convened on August 26, September 11, and October 2, 2014. The three days of hearings were presided over by Attorney Jon Malsnee, a sole practitioner from Wyomissing, who represented the Board, while Mr. Stott represented the District.

         Purcell was charged initially under section 508 of the Public School Code, 24 P.S. §5-508, [1] because of allegations that she entered into contracts with the District without a vote of the Board where the amount involved exceeded one hundred dollars. The allegations here were that Purcell authorized two consultants to present at a District retreat. The obligations to the two consultants were subsequently ratified by a Board vote and the consultants were later paid. (R.R. at 45-47, 334-40, 838.) This became Charge 1(a).

         Purcell was also charged under section 1080 of the School Code, 24 P.S. §10-1080, on the grounds of neglect of duty, incompetency, and immorality. (R.R. at 838.)

         The first of the charges under section 1080 was based on the testimony of former Board member James Washington, who said that the Board told Purcell that three schools within the District needed building principals on a permanent basis before the start of the 2013-14 school year, but that Purcell appointed two District employees to fill two of the vacancies, without Board approval, which is also in violation of section 580 of the School Code. Ultimately, none of the positions were filled in a timely manner, according to Mr. Washington. (R.R. at 23-24, 350-53, 839.) This became Charge 1(b).

         An additional charge under section 1080 was Purcell's alleged humiliation and embarrassment of the Board during 2013-14 public budget meetings. Specifically, after the Board decided to lay off a number of District employees in an effort to balance the budget, Purcell commented at a public meeting that she was going to find the funding to bring back one of the furloughed employees, the Director of Communications, but said nothing about the other employees. (R.R. at 32, 839.) This became Charge 2.

         The Board next charged Purcell with breaching section 13 of her employment agreement. That agreement required Purcell to "promptly file time off and written requests with the Board Secretary for sick leave, vacation and personal leave days. Such records shall remain in the custody of the Board Secretary. The Board President shall be responsible to approved [sic] and sign the time off requests." (R.R. at 297.) Board Secretary Linda Greth testified that she never received any such requests from Purcell between July 1, 2012, and July of 2013 despite days taken off by Purcell. (R.R. at 33, 47-48, 50, 354-62, 839-40.) This became Charge 3.

         The Board also charged Purcell with failing to meet multiple deadlines concerning the self-evaluation portion of Purcell's overall evaluation. This charge was supported by testimony of former Board member Karen McCree. (R.R. at 14-15.) This became Charge 4.

         The next charge alleged that Purcell failed to investigate the conduct of a building principal about whom the Board was concerned was mishandling funds, failing to compensate teachers for individual education plan (IEP) meetings, and failing to submit teacher evaluations to the District's human resources office. In July of 2013, the Board alleged, Purcell finally investigated the allegations, which resulted in the resignation of that principal. (R.R. at 17-18, 363-71, 840.) This became Charge 5.

         The Board charged Purcell with error in laying off the assistant director of food service because she was unaware that the food service budget was separate from the general District budget. Purcell's failure here, the Board charged, resulted in an unnecessary layoff in her effort to balance the general District budget. (R.R. at 34-36, 400-06, 840-41.) This became Charge 6.

         Purcell was charged by the Board with generally mishandling the budget process in 2013, caused by her lack of understanding of the entire budget process for Pennsylvania public schools. Specifically, the Board faulted Purcell concerning the timing of the budget process imposed by Pennsylvania statutes and regulations, in that Purcell supposedly believed that a school board should get its first preliminary budget in March, with preliminary adoption in May, and final approval of the budget in June. (R.R. at 11, 841-42.) The Board argued that Purcell was or should have been aware that Pennsylvania law requires school districts to exercise an option either to adopt a preliminary budget, including a schedule of proposed tax increases, no later than ninety days prior to the primary election immediately preceding the start of the upcoming fiscal year (which starts July 1 of every year) or to forgo those tax increases. Section 311(a) of the Taxpayer Relief Act, [2] 53 P.S. §6926.311(a). (R.R. at 841-42.)

         The Board also contended that Purcell knew or should have known that in lieu of a preliminary budget, school districts have the option of adopting a resolution indicating that any tax increase will not be above the index for that tax, which resolution must be adopted 110 days prior to the same primary election day. Section 311(d) of the Taxpayer Relief Act, 53 P.S. §6926.311(d). (R.R. at 841-42.) That index number is published the prior September. Section 333 of the Taxpayer Relief Act, 53 P.S. §6926.333. (R.R. at 842.) By March, the Board believed that many important budgetary decisions should have been completed. The primary election that year occurred on May 21, 2013. Between 100 and 110 days prior would have been approximately between January 31 and February 10, 2013. Further, the Board charged that Purcell did not know the difference between a "preliminary budget proposal" (which must be passed no later than 90 days prior to that primary election day, or by approximately February 20, 2013, if the District intended to apply for an exception allowing a greater tax increase under Sections 311(a) through (c) of the Taxpayer Relief Act, 53 P.S. §6926.311(a) through (c)) and a "proposed budget" (required to be adopted at least thirty days before the final budget under Section 687 of the Public School Code, 24 P.S. §6-687). At best, the Board concluded in its charge, Purcell was confused about the budget process. (R.R. at 112, 842.)

         Next, the Board charged Purcell with an untimely budget that failed to comply with Board directives. Former Board member Washington and current Board member Cooper testified that the budget problems were ongoing and that they conveyed a projected $8 million shortfall. (R.R. at 26-27, 842-43.) They testified that on April 29, 2013, the Board told Purcell it wanted her recommendations about closing the gap in the budget, with significant detail, but that the Board never received the line-item budget it sought. (R.R. at 27.)

         Purcell was also charged with failing to provide requested information and materials in advance of a budget workshop held on June 15, 2013. (R.R. at 27, 393-99.)

         Next, the Board charged that after a Board budget meeting on June 26, 2013, the Board believed that it was close to a balanced budget, but found on June 28 that it remained far away from a balanced budget, so that the Board ordered Purcell to provide a list of programs and positions which the Board wanted to be eliminated. (R.R. at 25-29, 372-74, 446-47, 842.) According to state law, the budget needed to be balanced that year by June 29, 2013, and the Board did not have a balanced budget by that date. (R.R. at 28, 375-78.)

         Finally, the Board charged that it had adopted a resolution that Purcell was to provide a balanced budget by end of day on July 17, 2013, but that Purcell failed to do so until the following ...

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