Hearing Officer Reverses Huntsville Teacher’s Firing

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A Davis Hills Middle School teacher who was fired for taking leave during the first week of school learned Wednesday she has won her appeal.

A retired judge heard Joanne Thompson’s appeal of her termination and sided with her.  Retired Judge Sandra Storm reversed Thompson’s termination.  Thompson has been on the Huntsville City Schools payroll while she appealed the board’s decision.

Thompson has taught English in Huntsville City Schools for 14 years and has an unblemished record, wrote the judge.  Thompson requested off for the first week of school to attend a church convention with her husband, who is a minister.  They had bought non-refundable airline tickets.  At the time Thompson requested off, Davis Hills was without a principal, so Thompson entered her days to be off in the school computer system and found a substitute.  She also prepared lesson plans for students.

The school system hired a new principal for Davis Hills soon afterward.  The principal denied Thompson’s request for time off and told Thompson she would be written up if she went on the trip.

Thompson says she knew she would take a write-up for going, but did not think she would be fired.  The write-up would be the first disciplinary action against her in her 14 years at Davis Hills Middle.

Thompson emailed Superintendent Casey Wardynski about her request.  He affirmed the principal’s decision.

When Thompson went on the trip, she was fired.  Thompson appealed her termination on the grounds she was not told she would be fired for taking off work, but would be ‘written up.’

Thompson was fired for ‘neglect of duty.’  Storm, the hearing officer, addressed that in her ruling.

“By failing to appear at school, it can be said that Thompson did neglect her duty to appear herself,” Storm wrote.  “The fact that she arranged for a qualified substitute teacher and prepared work for the students is important in examining the degree to which she neglected her duty.  She did not simply fail to appear for work without notice. She did not leave the school without qualified staff for her classes.  However, failure to appear after being told to do so by her superiors is a neglect of her duty.”

“Thompson took the leave against the wishes of her superiors but there is no doubt that she relied on their representations as to the consequences of taking that leave,” Storm went on to say.  “Thompson relied on those representations of the Superintendent and others to her detriment.  She should not be terminated under those circumstances.”

Dr. Wardynski expressed displeasure with the ruling.

“The hearing officer’s decision will make it hard to improve the educational culture in those schools and classrooms in which the desires of the adults come before the needs of the children,” Wardynski said in a statement.  “The teacher failed to report to her school to teach the entire first week of class.  She ignored the instructions of both the principal and superintendent who directed her to be in her class.”

“The school board found that she had neglected her duty and upheld my recommendation to terminate her employment,” Wardynski went on to say.  “The hearing officer agreed that she had neglected her duty.  The hearing officer also rejected claims that the board had violated state statute and board policy, denied the teacher due process, and failed to accommodate her religion.  However, despite this, this teacher who neglected her duty now receives no punishment whatsoever, thanks to this hearing officer.  No one promised the teacher that she would only receive a “write up” for refusing to follow instructions to be in school.  Certainly, I did not.”

Wardynski said he plans to seek a review of the decision.

WHNT News 19 is working to get more reaction on this story, including reaction from Thompson.  We’ll have the very latest on WHNT News 19 at 5:00 p.m.

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