More than five years after the Ottawa High School Board of Education fired teacher Tim Burgess and following several court proceedings, his dismissal will be reversed.
The Illinois Supreme Court denied a petition from the Ottawa High School Board to reconsider an Appellate Court's decision last fall to reverse the 2015 firing of Burgess.
The matter will go back to the La Salle County circuit court to determine the next steps, but Burgess will have to get his job back, or the parties will have to reach an agreement that satisfies the ruling.
The Appellate Court has said the board's decision to fire Burgess was “clearly erroneous.”
The school board fired Burgess, also a coach, for what a majority of board members termed “inappropriate and unprofessional conduct,” based on his conduct at a September 2014 union meeting, a November 2014 union meeting and a December 2014 investigatory meeting.
"It's finally over," Burgess said on Thursday.
Calling the previous ruling "a significant legal error," the Ottawa High School Board through its legal argument said the case presents an important question to consider regarding the ability of public entities, such as the board, to discipline public employees "for engaging in conduct outside of work hours, which violates the rules and directives of the employer."
The Ottawa High School Board will respect the court's wishes.
"Notwithstanding the lower court decisions and the local school board decision, the Illinois Supreme Court has decided not to exercise its discretionary authority to review the decision of Third District Appellate Court and its novel concept of private context immunity," said Ottawa High School Board President Don Harris in a statement Thursday. "The OTHS School District will proceed as directed by the judicial process and the Illinois School Code in bringing this matter to closure."
After a hearing on Burgess’ termination, an Illinois State Board of Education hearing officer recommended Burgess should be reinstated. However, a majority of the board still held Burgess should remain fired. Burgess went to court to have a judge overturn the board’s action, but Circuit Judge Joseph Hettel upheld the board’s decision.
Appellate judges said in a September ruling the actions occurred at closed-door meetings and the conduct, while not condoned, doesn’t relate to Burgess’ fitness to perform as a teacher.
The ruling stated the context of Burgess’ prior conduct, which was used in the board's argument, is “highly significant.” Three previous disciplinary actions were related to his duties as a teacher. The conduct that precipitated the notice to remedy occurred at a public meeting of the school board.
The board's attorney argued the only distinguishing feature in the Appellate Court's opinion between conduct relating to the employee's fitness as a teacher and that which was immune from the reach of disciplinary consequence was the time of day when the misconduct occurred.
"No Illinois court has ever determined that public employees are immune from disciplinary consequences when the employee's misconduct occurs off-duty," the board's attorney wrote.
Burgess told The Times when the Appellate ruling was initially made in September, it was good for other teachers fighting dismissal cases, because it demonstrates the board needs "just cause to fire somebody."