Noelle Roni, the former principal at charter school Peak to Peak Elementary in Colorado, was allegedly terminated in November for opposing what can only be described as a bizarre school practice. According to news reports, the school fired Roni after she demanded cafeteria workers stop stamping the hands of students who received lunches but did not have enough money to pay for their lunches. Ms. Roni found the practice “disrespectful” and humiliating to the children.
Surprisingly, her opposition resulted in her termination for opposing such a strange practice. (You can read Ms. Roni’s public statement here and read more about the reported allegations here.) The news outlets have done a good job of canvassing the story and I do not have any personal knowledge of the facts to add, but I thought it would be interesting to look at how Ms. Roni’s situation may shake out from an employment law perspective.
Ms. Roni does not enjoy the protections that most education employees enjoy. Most school employees work for public education, which affords the employees certain additional employment rights as government employees. They are entitled to due process rights, under the constitution, that include a right to a hearing on any disciplinary action. Here, however, Ms. Roni is an employee of a private charter school. Her employment is more like most employees who work for private employers.
Labor law in Texas
In Texas, at very least, that would not attach constitutional protections to her job. Teachers, at least at public schools, tend to be part of a teachers’ union. Ms. Roni, as a principal, is a management employee and not protected by a union’s collective bargaining agreement. She would have to rely upon her status as either an at-will employee or whatever rights she may have under an individual employment contract. As a private charter school employee her employment rights include the slim protections for Texas workers plus anything she agrees to under her employment contract.
If Ms. Roni’s employment was under contract, we would have to know what the terms of her contract included to know exactly what protections she might have for her job. The contract may include specific disciplinary processes. It may also include a “for cause” clause that limits the reasons to discipline her. Employees who work under a contract generally have substantially more protections for their job than employees under an at-will relationship.
At-will employment in Texas
If she is an at-will employee then her job protections will be very slight. At least as far as Texas employment law is concerned, Ms. Roni would certainly have to stretch to find a legitimate basis to argue the termination created a claim for reinstatement or some financial relief. She may be able to assert some language in the employee handbook created a contract that prohibited termination on this basis but these claims typically fail because employers almost always include disclaimers that the handbook does not create an employment contract. At least in Texas, these disclaimers are usually successful.
Absent a contract, Ms. Roni may only have a remedy through unemployment benefits. It appears the local community is supporting her and working to convince the school board to reinstate her. It remains unknown whether that will succeed; but at least it’s better than relying on the at-will relationship to protect her for doing the right thing.