Regents reject state findings on teacher termination with no discussion

'Apparently the board members had their minds made up'

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Without going into closed session to discuss the matter — and with no public debate — the Board of Regents on Thursday rejected a state adjudicator’s finding the board terminated an Iowa School for the Deaf teacher without just cause.

Had the regents not voted to reject it, the adjudicator’s decision would have reversed Tina Murdoch’s termination and reinstated her as a teacher with the Council Bluffs special school. But Thursday’s unanimous vote means the board will appeal the case to the district court, and Murdoch will remain separated from the school for now.

Her attorney, Raymond Aranza, with Marks Clare & Richards, LLC, of Omaha, said his client is disappointed, but not surprised. On Wednesday, after notifying the public of Thursday’s meeting on the issue, a Board of Regents attorney sent Aranza an email to let him know the board was going to “meet tomorrow to vote to reject the adjudicator’s decision.”

When Aranza asked her if the board already had discussed the issue — potentially violating open meetings laws — board attorney Aimee Claeys clarified her initial message.

“I apologize if my email was inartfully drafted,” she wrote. “I was simply notifying you that the board will be meeting to consider the matter tomorrow.”

Board spokesman Josh Lehman confirmed for The Gazette the board did not meet or vote on the subject before Thursday.

Aranza said he doesn’t know whether or not regents violated any laws.

But, he said, “the motion to reject the decision was already prepared prior to the meeting, and there was no discussion.”

“Apparently the board members had their minds made up,” Aranza said.

The nine-member Board of Regents in March unanimously agreed to terminate Murdoch, who had taught at the Iowa School for the Deaf 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, Aranza said.

The women in November 2015 received letters suspending them and recommending termination. Murdoch was making $60,375 at the time and Tighe was making $65,348.

An adjudicator considering Tighe’s case hasn’t issued any findings, and Aranza said he doesn’t know when they might come.

The decision to terminate Murdoch, according to the adjudicator’s Aug. 2 report, was based on opinion, not achievement scores or other objective measure.

“After 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, Neil Barrick, with the state-run Public Employment Relations Board.

He also raised concerns around the board process in coming to the decision.

“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,” Barrick wrote. “Ms. Murdoch was entitled to present a full and complete defense, something a two-hour time limit did not allow.”

Aranza said Murdoch is employed but not as a full-time teacher, and he said that’s too bad for the students and parents with which she worked.

“This is a special school that serves a segment of the population that is underserved in general,” he said. “This means that Ms. Murdoch will most likely not be able to teach this school year — unfortunate in that she was a popular and well-respected teacher.”

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