On September 27, 2010, the Commonwealth Court announced its decision in a case brought by a group of School Directors who were removed from the North Schuylkill School District Board by the Court of Common Pleas.  The Commonwealth Court affirmed the action of the lower court, and held that the School Directors were properly removed from their offices.  This case, while unusual, underscores the need for School Boards to diligently fill Superintendent vacancies.

By way of background, the North Schuylkill Superintendent submitted his resignation, to be effective June 29, 2007.  A month later, the Board appointed an Acting Superintendent and advertised for applicants to fill the Superintendent vacancy.  In response to the advertisement, eight (8) applications were received, all of whom had Superintendent certification, and all but one of whom held doctorate degrees.  None of the eight applicants were contacted by the Board for an interview.

While it was receiving responses to its advertisement, the Board submitted a Mandate Waiver Application and asked the Pennsylvania Department of Education to waive the requirements pertaining to Superintendent eligibility so that the Board could name its Solicitor as Superintendent.  Specifically, the Board asked PDE to waive the provisions of Section 1003 of the School Code, which mandates that Superintendents have six years of successful teaching experience, including three in a supervisory or administrative capacity, and that they complete a graduate program which includes school leadership training.  PDE denied the mandate waiver application on the basis that only distressed school districts could seek such a waiver, and that the proffered Superintendent candidate must have completed alternate training, which the District’s Solicitor had not.

Within a month after receiving PDE’s letter denying the mandate waiver application, the Board appointed its Solicitor to be the Acting Assistant Superintendent and agreed to pay for the Solicitor’s pursuit of a graduate degree in education.  Around the same time, the previously-appointed Acting Superintendent stopped regularly coming to work and day-to-day operations in the District were overseen by the Solicitor/Acting Assistant Superintendent.

A revised Mandate Waiver Application was submitted by the District which again sought to have the Superintendent requirements waived for the Solicitor.  PDE again rejected the Application, and less than a month later the Board appointed the Solicitor as the District’s Acting Superintendent, with a salary of $110,000 and benefits.  A third Mandate Waiver Application was submitted by the District, in which it was claimed that the education requirements for Superintendents should be waived because the Solicitor now had on-the-job experience as both an Acting Assistant Superintendent and an Acting Superintendent.

By this point, it had been nearly two years since the North Schuylkill School District had a properly qualified Superintendent in place.  A Petition was filed pursuant to Section 318 of the School Code with the Court of Common Pleas to remove the Board for neglect in performing a duty imposed upon it by the School Code.  The lower court judge found that the Board’s refusal to interview any of the qualified candidates who replied to the advertisement, combined with the multiple meritless Mandate Waiver Applications and the appointment of its unqualified Solicitor to the position of Superintendent constituted grounds for removal under Section 318, and the judge appointed replacement candidates to sit on the Board.

The removed School Directors’ appeal was rejected by the Commonwealth Court.  The Commonwealth Court held that Section 1071 of the School Code creates a mandatory duty for School Boards to appoint a qualified Superintendent, and that because Section 1079 limits the period in which an Acting Superintendent may serve, a School Board must immediately carry out its duty to find a qualified Superintendent, and that this process must be completed within one year.

In the present case, the Commonwealth Court noted that the North Schuylkill School Board was never relieved from those responsibilities, as their Mandate Waiver Applications were uniformly rejected and the Court found that the School Code’s obligations were not stayed while those Applications were pending.  Further, the Court noted the Board’s failure to interview any of the eight qualified applicants, and intimated that the entire process reflected an intent to award the District’s Superintendency to its Solicitor, who was not only unqualified, but also under a conflict of interest in providing advice to the Board.

It’s unlikely that a factual scenario as unusual as this one will be presented to your District, but this case illustrates that the mandatory duties enumerated in the School Code for School Directors to perform must be carried out, and the failure to perform them can subject a Board to removal.  In short, if the School Code says that a Board “shall elect a properly qualified person as district superintendent,” then the Board must do so.

Alfred Maiello

Alfred C. Maiello is the founding member of MBM and has represented area school districts as solicitor for 50 years. He counsels school districts and educational institutions on leading developments in school law and guiding them through their day-to-day and long-term challenges.