SENATE BILL 1007 ATTEMPTS TO LIMIT THE POWER OF "LAME DUCK" SCHOOLS BOARDS TO APPOINT OR DISMISS A SUPERINTENDENT

Currently pending before the Pennsylvania State Senate is Bill Number 1007, which would prevent a school board from appointing or dismissing a superintendent where three or more of its members have lost their bids to remain on the board in the primary elections. The nature of the issue is that school board members run for re-election in the primaries in May and, even if they lose in the primary, continue to sit on the board through the regular election in November and until the new board is installed in December. In the past, the board, including the members who have been “voted off”, could take actions to either appoint or dismiss a superintendent during that time-frame and Senate Bill 1007 attempts to limit the ability to do so.  

Currently, the School Code requires that a board meet “during the last year of the term of the district superintendent” in order to “elect or approve a properly qualified district superintendent” to serve a term of three to five years. The School Code further requires that at least one hundred and fifty days prior to the expiration date of the superintendent’s term of office, the board vote on and advise the superintendent as to whether he or she will be retained or that other candidates will be considered for the position. Generally, if the board fails to do so, the superintendent’s contract is automatically renewed.   

The issue was squarely addressed by the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court in the case of Burns v. Bd. of Directors of the Uniontown Area Sch. Dist., and it has been held that a board may approve a contract for a superintendent in the time-frame between a primary election and the installation of the new board. In Burns, in May of 1997, three sitting members of the school board lost their bids for re-election in the primary and then on July 1, 1997, the sitting superintendent entered the last year of his term. At a July 11, 1997, meeting of the board, the board voted 6-1 to elect the superintendent to a new term of five years of July 1, 1998 through July 1, 2003 and approve the terms of his contract for that term. The Burns Court explained that under the current statutory scheme, the school board is empowered to elect a superintendent during the last year of his or her term of office. The Court further explained that by outlining the procedure provided for under the School Code, the legislature “excluded by implication any exception to that procedure in election years for school board members” and raised concerns that if the board didn’t act and the new board did not act promptly enough, the superintendent’s contact would be renewed by default.     

Interestingly, the members of the Pennsylvania Senate are not the first to question the idea of a lame duck school board being involved in the process of appointing a superintendent. In the case of Demi v. Clearfield Area School District, the Clearfield County Court of Common Pleas found prior to Burns such an action was improper under the School Code. The Demi Court seemed to be particularly concerned with the fact that the incoming board “campaigned on a promise to give serious and through consideration to the matter of renewing the superintendent’s contract” and the old board’s action essentially thwarted the new board’s ability to do so. 

Senate Bill 1007, in its current form, would preclude a school board upon which three or more members “have been defeated in the primary election” from renewing or rescinding the contract of a superintendent, except for cause, until a new board has taken office. The Bill further limits the provision to when the superintendent has 11 or more months remaining on his or her contract.  The Bill is still pending before the Senate and its final form may change. Further updates on the Bill’s progress and any changes will follow.