The Illinois School Code allows a school district to enter into an employment contract with an administrator for a period of up to five years if the contract includes performance goals. In the absence of performance goals, the law allows for a contract of no greater than one year. Frequently, school boards and administrators enter into a multi-year contract that identifies a future date by which they must establish performance goals. In the case of Wynn v. Board of Education of School District No. 159, 2001 WL 1882452 (N.D.Ill. May 17, 2011), the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois invalidated this practice, ruling that a multi-year superintendent contract must expressly identify the goals and indicators of student performance at the time of the contract’s execution.
The Board of Education of School District 159 voted to hire Dr. Ronald Wynn as superintendent in March of 2008. The Board and Dr. Wynn then entered into a three-year employment contract to run from July 1, 2008 to July 30, 2011. Rather than specifically identifying the performance goals, the contract stated the goals were to be determined by mutual agreement of the parties. The contract required the parties to establish goals for the 2008-09 school year by October 1, 2008. The parties were to establish goals for the last two years of the contract by July 1 of each remaining contract year.
In January of 2010, during the second year of the contract, the Board notified Wynn of its intent to not renew his contract. In a letter to Wynn, the Board stated it intended to not renew his contract for either the 2010-11 contract year or the 2011-12 contract year. Wynn then met with the Board to dispute the Board’s attempt to terminate his contract at the end of the 2009-10 contract year.
In March of 2010, the Board voted to suspend Wynn indefinitely, and approved formal written charges for Wynn’s dismissal. The Board then provided Wynn with a letter dated April 29, 2010 rescinding his suspension and requiring Wynn to return to work in an administrative capacity. Wynn would not be returning as superintendent, but would be receiving the same pay and benefits defined in his contract. Then, in June of 2010, the Board voted to non-renew Wynn’s superintendent contract.
Wynn brought a lawsuit in federal court alleging a violation of his federal due process rights, as well as state-law claims for breach of contract and Open Meetings Act violations. Regarding his due process claim, Wynn argued he had a property interest in his continued employment with the District, and that the Board violated his right to due process by terminating his employment without a hearing.
To consider Wynn’s due process claim, the court first determined whether a protectable property right existed. To establish a protectable property interest, Wynn had to prove he had a legitimate claim of entitlement to continued employment with the District. Wynn referenced his employment contract as proof that he had the necessary legitimate claim of entitlement to continued employment.
District 159, on the other hand, argued that Wynn’s contract was not actually a performance-based contract because it did not, on its face, actually identify the goals and indicators of student performance and academic improvement. If Wynn’s contract was not a true performance-based contract, then under the School Code the contract could not exist for a term greater than one year. The multi-year contract without performance goals and indicators would therefore be void, and Wynn would lack the legitimate claim of entitlement to continued employment necessary to establish a due process violation.
The court agreed with District 159 and ruled Wynn’s contract violated Section 10-23.8 of the School Code. In particular, the court ruled that, under Section 10-23.8 of the School Code, a multi-year superintendent contract must actually identify the goals and indicators at the time the agreement is adopted. The language in Wynn’s contract, obligating the parties to devise the performance goals at a later date, failed to meet the requirements of the School Code. Wynn’s contract was therefore not, in fact, performance-based.
The court ruled the contract was void. Wynn was thus unable to prove he had a protectable property interest in continued employment with the District, and the court dismissed his federal due process claim. The court declined to consider Wynn’s state law claims, reserving those matters for a potential lawsuit in state court.
The result of this case is immediately significant for any school district with a multi-year superintendent contract that calls for mutually agreed upon performance goals to be determined at a later date. Any such contract could be deemed void after one year, based on the lack of specifically-identified performance goals at the time of the contract’s adoption. The same would be true for multi-year performance based principal, assistant principal and other administrator contracts under Section 10-23.8a. To rectify this problem, a school district facing this issue should enter into a new contract with its administrators and have the performance goals attached to the contract at the time the contract is approved by the board of education. Going forward, school districts should ensure that performance goals are identified at the time of the adoption of any multi-year administrator contract.