Court Upholds Local School District's Authority to Require Special Certification for English Language Instruction & Union's Ability to Negotiate Added Stipend

On September 29, 2009, the California Court of Appeal for the Third Appellate District handed down an important decision dealing with the rights of school districts, unions and teaching staff. The case involved the Ripon Unified School District, located in the San Joaquin Valley between Modesto and Stockton (Governing Board of Ripon Unified School District v. Commission on Professional Conduct, 2009 WL 3088417 (Sept. 29, 2009).  The Ripon case involved one of the most difficult challenges facing a local school district: the provision of quality instruction to students who are not proficient in English.  As part of the effort to assure equal educational opportunity, the legislature has adopted a statute that requires students to be taught English “as rapidly and effectively as possible.” (Education Code, §300.)    Public school teachers who provide instruction to English learners (EL students) must be specially certified. (Education Code §44253.3, 44243.4, 44253.10.)  In the Ripon case, the local district was out of compliance with various instructional requirements pertaining to EL students and the school board adopted a rule that all the teachers in the district had to obtain certification to provide EL instruction.  In addition, the district negotiated an agreement with the teachers’ union whereby the district would pay the cost of training provided the teachers obtained it from the county office of education, and the district also agreed to prove the teachers with an additional $400 stipend.  A music teacher in the district refused to comply.  She contended that district did not have the authority to impose the requirement; that the union did not have the authority to negotiate the contractual stipulations; and that in any event, she had never had a student in her music class who required special EL instruction.    The teacher lost on all points. The court made it clear that local school districts have very broad authority to carry out state mandates, that the union has great flexibility in negotiating contractual provisions, even if the terms are not specifically delineated in the express “scope of representation” set forth in Section 5243.2 of the Government Code.  The court also rejected the teacher’s point about her having no EL students. The court was concerned that the district be ready for the day when they do have such students with special needs. And finally, the court noted that the negotiations and new requirements did not alter the grounds for termination, which are fixed in the Education Code.  The teacher was terminated for refusing to comply with valid district regulation and that has always been a valid reason to terminate a teacher as expressly set forth in the governing dismissal statute.  (See Education Code § 44932.)  There is a lot to study in this case.  Most noteworthy are the confirmation of local authority and the recognition that unions have a vital role to play in the collective bargaining process as districts attempt to cope with new requirements that are imposed by state law.