Adjudicator finds Iowa Board of Regents terminated teacher 'without just cause'

Attorney, adjudicator question board process

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A state adjudicator has ruled in favor of an Iowa School for the Deaf teacher who the Board of Regents terminated earlier this year, questioning not only the decision but how the board reached it.

“I find that the termination of Tina Murdoch was without just cause,” Neil Barrick, an adjudicator with the Iowa Public Employment Relations Board, wrote in his Aug. 2 decision. “Just cause cannot include reasons which are arbitrary, unfair, or generated out of some petty vendetta.”

The nine-member board in March unanimously agreed to terminate Murdoch, who had taught at the Council Bluffs school for 25 years, and Tricia Tighe, who had been with the school 15 years, after a new principal determined they were not meeting state teaching standards, according to the adjudicator.

The decisions were based on opinion, not achievement scores or other objective measure, according to the decision.

The board is planning to meet in closed session Thursday to discuss the adjudicator’s finding, according to Murdoch’s attorney Raymond Aranza, with The Law Office of Marks Clare & Richards, LLC, in Omaha. An adjudicator considering Tighe’s case has not yet issued a decision, he said.

The board could reject the Murdoch decision and appeal to the district court, Aranza said. If they don’t, the adjudicator’s decision reverses Murdoch’s termination and reinstates her as a teacher — a decision which includes lost wages, benefits, and service credits since her firing.

“The overall review of Ms. Murdoch’s performance by staff at (Iowa School for the Deaf) was not done in a fair fashion,” according to Barrick. “The board’s review of the termination decision failed to take into consideration the entirety of the circumstances.”

In fact, Barrick specifically questioned the board’s process in reviewing the allegations and the time it spent considering them.

“As the adjudicator, I am also concerned about the hearing process before the Board of Regents,” he wrote. “I was not presented with any evidence as to how the two-hour maximum for the entire hearing process was determined, but I have never been involved in a matter where so much is at stake and such a short time period involved to get a full record made.”

The Board of Regents on Wednesday morning issued a notice for Thursday’s meeting, as required by Iowa law. A short time later, board attorney Aimee Claeys sent Aranza an email to give him a “courtesy notice that the Board of Regents will meet tomorrow to vote to reject the adjudicator’s decision.”

“I will confirm the board’s vote with you following the meeting,” she wrote in the email obtained by The Gazette.

Aranza asked how the board came to a decision without meeting, as required by law.

“I don’t know how they could do that without meeting on it already,” he told The Gazette. “It felt odd that I have this email that they’re going to reject it. It sounds like a decision has been made, and if it’s been made, it sounds like people have been discussing the matter.”

After Aranza raised his concerns with Claeys, asking, “Have there been communications between the board members prior to tomorrow,” she clarified her earlier message.

“I was simply notifying you that the board will be meeting to consider the matter tomorrow,” she wrote.

Board spokesman Josh Lehman and Claeys confirmed for The Gazette the initial email was “inartfully drafted” and was meant to include the word, “consider.” They said the board has not yet met or taken any vote on the issue.

Aranza said the case — in that it is based on limited opinions and observations — is important because it could set a dangerous precedent for Iowa.

“After a careful review of all the evidence, written or at hearing, it appears that several major factors seem to have been ignored by the board in its consideration of the decision to terminate and of the evidence submitted,” according to the adjudicator’s decision.

Murdoch — who had been with the regents’ special school since 1990 — last summer signed a contract for the 2015-16 school year to earn a base salary of $60,375, a cut from her previous year’s pay of $61,179, according to state salary records.

Tighe — who started at the school in 2000 — also signed a contract last summer to make a base salary of $65,348, less than her previous year’s pay of $66,801, according to state records.

The women in November 2015 received letters suspending them and recommending termination, according to Aranza.

Barrick’s decision in the Murdoch case stressed she’s not guilty of any “serious misconduct or insubordination and her performance in the classroom should not be judged by guidelines or precedent involving forms of egregious behaviors.”

Aranza said his client is pleased with the decision and feels vindicated. But, he said, they expect the Board of Regents to disagree.

“Unfortunately, this prevents the students from having an experienced teacher in a school where there is such a need for experience this school year,” he said.

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