Reeves v. Barlow (4/12/2011)

April 18, 2011

Arizona Court of Appeals Division One Holds that School District Employees Who Do Not Possess a Teaching Certificate May Not Participate in Teacher Merit Pay Compensation System.

Pursuant to A.R.S. § 15-977, each school district in Arizona must adopt a performance-based compensation system for eligible teachers.  The system must meet enumerated statutory requirements, including approval by at least 70 percent of the “teachers eligible to participate in the performance-based compensation system.”

Three employees of the Window Rock Unified School District filed a mandamus action against the school district and certain of its employees, seeking an order to compel the district to submit the district’s proposed compensation system to them for a vote.  The employees – a physical therapist, a psychologist, and a speech therapist/pathologist –  alleged that they were each a teacher eligible to participate in the performance-based compensation system and that the school district had no discretion to interpret “teacher” in a manner to exclude them.

The school district filed a motion for summary judgment.  The trial court granted the motion, finding that school districts have discretion under § 15-977 to define who is an eligible “teacher.”  The employees appealed.  The Arizona Court of Appeals affirmed. 

Mandamus is a remedy used to compel a public officer to perform a duty required by law.  Generally, if an action of a public officer is discretionary, that discretion may not be controlled by mandamus.

The Court of Appeals first held that, in using the term “teacher” in § 15-977(C)(9), the Legislature intended to limit the term to those employees who hold a teaching certificate.  See A.R.S. § 15-502(B) (prohibiting school districts from employing as a teacher anyone without a teaching certificate).  Because two of the employees did not hold teaching certificates, the school district could not have lawfully permitted them to participate in the compensation system.

The third employee held a teaching certificate but admitted that no such certificate was required for her position as a speech therapist.  The Court held that, under § 15-977, a school district retains discretion to determine whether an employee who possess a teaching certificate but is not employed in a position requiring a certificate, is eligible to participate in the compensation system.  Because the school district had discretion to determine whether the third employee qualified for the compensation system, the trial court properly denied the claim for mandamus.

Presiding Judge Hall authored the opinion; Judges Thompson and Winthrop concurred.