Appellate Court affirms Ottawa High School teacher’s firing should be reversed

School board will consider its next action

The Appellate Court in Ottawa on Thursday denied the Ottawa High School Board’s petition to rehear the Tim Burgess case.

The Appellate Court issued an order in October to reverse his 2015 dismissal and send back the matter to the La Salle County Circuit Court. Appellate judges are standing by the ruling, releasing an identical judgment to the initial ruling in its Thursday confirmation.

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.

The board is considering its next action, which may involve petitioning to the Illinois Supreme Court. The school board must make its decision by Feb. 13.

“Unfortunately, the Illinois Appellate Court has chosen to leave in place the language and decision that was originally entered,” said Don Harris, Ottawa High School board president. “We will continue to review our legal options regarding this matter and will take those actions deemed in the best interest of Ottawa Township High School District 140.”

Burgess and his lawyer will wait on the board to see what action is taken.

“I’m very appreciative of the Appellate Court’s decision,” Burgess said. “I believe it was the right decision.”

In January 2015, the school board fired Burgess, citing disruptions at a teachers union meeting as the tipping point after a history of warnings on previous disciplinary infractions.

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.

In its petition to rehear the case, the district said there were several fundamental errors in the appellate judges’ assessment of the facts.

Specifically, the district said the court put inappropriate weight on witnesses. Appellate judges had said the board unfairly placed its own witnesses at the top and Burgess’ at the bottom of the hierarchy. In turn, the board said judges did the same thing by overlooking the bias from Burgess’ witnesses.

The board also said the court ignored the power legislators gave school boards when they passed Senate Bill 7, which gave school boards the ability to dismiss teachers, so long as it is not arbitrary, capricious or unrelated to their service.

The board said this governing tool passed on by legislators is intended to give local voters control in these matters and it was usurped by the court’s ruling.

“While the Board of Education respects the decision and opinion issued by the Appellate Court, there is concern that its legal analysis of both the facts and law involved in this case was incorrect,” Harris said in his statement. “Specifically, the Board is advised that there was more than sufficient evidence in the record to warrant the disciplinary action taken by the Board of Education with respect to Mr. Burgess and that its ultimate decision to terminate his employment was neither inappropriate nor clearly erroneous.”

The Appellate Court said the decision to fire Burgess was “clearly erroneous.”

The ruling stated the context of Burgess’ prior conduct is “highly significant.” The 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.

“In marked contrast, the conduct that allegedly violated the notice to remedy and resulted in his dismissal was not related to his job performance, nor was it related to any impact on students, parents, members of the OTHS Board, the general public or staff in a school context.”

Judges said the actions occurred at closed-door meetings and the conduct, while not condoned, doesn’t relate to Burgess’ fitness to perform as a teacher.