School Mistakenly Relied on MDE’s Teacher Certification Website to Support Discharge

A Tenure Commission ALJ recently ordered Flint Community Schools to reinstate teacher Beth Casucci, finding that the District’s decision to terminate her em­ployment violated the Teachers’ Tenure Act. Casucci v Flint Cmty Schs (PDO 13-54).

The school’s file indicated that Casucci’s teaching certificate would expire on June 30, 2013. In November 2012 and February 2013, the school sent Casucci warning letters that her teaching certificate would expire and failure to provide a current teaching certificate by the expiration date would result in discharge.

In March 2013, Casucci applied for a teaching certif­icate renewal and, in that application, disclosed that she had been convicted of two misdemeanors. Upon receipt of the renewal application, the Office of Profes­sional Preparation Services (“OPPS”) notified Casucci that it was investigating the criminal conviction and the possible impact on her certification renewal. She admit­ted to OPPS that she had not informed the school in writing of the arrest and conviction but that she verbal­ly told her principal and the school’s office of risk bene­fits. Casucci also told OPPS that her paperwork for the teaching certificate renewal had to be filed with the school by June 30 or she would be terminated. Casucci alleged that OPPS assured her that her teaching certifi­cate would not expire.

In May 2013, the school notified Casucci that her contract would not be renewed for the 2013-2014 school year due to budgetary reasons. In June 2013, OPPS noti­fied Casucci that her teaching certificate would be re­newed if she agreed to OPPS’s conditional agreement and returned the agreement to OPPS no later than July 12, 2013. Casucci never provided this letter to the school’s human resources office. On July 9, 2013, Casucci signed the conditional agreement and returned it to OPPS. In a letter dated July 17, 2013, OPPS stated that her application for renewal had cleared and, upon re­ceipt of the renewal fees, she would receive a renewed teaching certificate. She did not provide a copy of this letter to the school.

On July 1, 2013 and July 10, 2013, the school’s human resources officer checked MDE’s teacher certification verification website and confirmed that Casucci had not renewed her teaching certificate. On July 17, 2013, the board terminated Casucci’s employment because her teaching certificate had expired. On July 18, 2013, MDE issued Casucci a renewed teaching certificate, which she forwarded to the school and the school received on September 26, 2013.

Casucci filed a Claim of Appeal with the State Ten­ure Commission challenging her discharge.

The ALJ held that Casucci should be reinstated, finding that OPPS’s investigation into the criminal con­viction delayed the renewal of her certificate. Further, Section 91 of the Administrative Procedures Act pro­vides that where a teacher has timely applied for re­newal of a teaching certificate but the renewal is de­layed pending an investigation, the existing license does not expire until the agency makes a decision on the application. Here, Casucci applied for renewal three months before her certificate’s expiration, but the in­vestigation into the criminal conviction delayed com­pletion of the renewal process. Therefore, under state law, Casucci’s teaching certificate remained valid when the board acted to discharge her. The ALJ found that because Casucci was a certified and tenured teacher at that time, the board’s termination of her employment without a hearing violated the Tenure Act.

This case illustrates the importance of communi­cating with a teacher before the teacher’s certificate expires and before the board acts to terminate em­ployment. School officials should not rely solely on the MDE’s teacher certification verification website for cer­tification information. School officials must instead communicate with teachers before taking employment action based on failure to renew a teaching certificate.