COLEMAN, Circuit Judge:
In May, 1969, on grounds of incompetency the school board of Marion County, Florida, terminated the employment contract of Mrs. Hattie M. Blunt, a black school teacher of some twenty-five years experience. Unsuccessful in an administrative appeal from the school board decision,
The relief sought was reinstatement of Mrs. Blunt's teaching contract, along with back pay and accrued retirement benefits.
After a bench trial before the District Court for the Middle District of Florida, judgment was entered in favor of the Marion County School Board and the State Board of Education on the basis of failure of proof, Blunt v. Marion County School Board (M.D.Fla., 1973), 366 F.Supp. 727.
We affirm the judgment of the District Court in all respects.
The Substantive Due Process Claim
The essence of Mrs. Blunt's substantive due process claim is that the evidence presented to the Marion County School Board was insufficient to support a finding of incompetency. A review of the transcript of the testimony presented at her dismissal hearing in May, 1969 supplies the following facts:
Prior to her dismissal at the close of the 1968-69 school year, Mrs. Blunt had taught elementary education in the Marion County school system for twenty-five years. During the 1968-69 term she was employed as a second grade teacher at Fessenden School under a "continuing contract". Under this contractual agreement, Mrs. Blunt could not be dismissed except for "good and sufficient reasons".
Throughout the 1968-69 school year Mrs. Blunt's teaching performance was observed by three supervisors: Mr. Eugene Broxton, the principal at Fessenden School; Mrs. Margaret Cody, the assistant principal in charge of elementary education at Fessenden; and Mrs. Marie Keeney, early childhood coordinator for the Marion County school system. As early as October, 1968, Mr. Broxton, Mrs. Cody, and Mrs. Keeney agreed that Mrs. Blunt's performance was not sufficient to meet the educational needs of her children. On November 7, Mrs. Keeney submitted a written evaluation of Mrs. Blunt's work, which was reviewed with Mrs. Blunt by Mr. Broxton and Mrs. Cody. Mrs. Blunt was hostile to the criticisms set forth in the evaluation, and she displayed an unreceptive attitude to the assistance offered by her supervisors. On November 12, 1968, Mr. Broxton sent Mrs. Blunt a letter detailing the deficiencies noted in Mrs. Keeney's evaluation and offering assistance for the improvement of her teaching techniques.
Further evaluations of Mrs. Blunt's work were made on November 20 and December 5, neither of which indicated any substantial improvement in her instructional technique. These were followed by a letter from Mr. Broxton, dated December 12, in which he stated that Mrs. Blunt would have to improve in her performance or else a recommendation would be made for her dismissal. Thereafter, Mrs. Blunt continued to exhibit the same belligerent attitude toward offers of assistance from her supervisors, so, in March, 1969, Mr. Broxton recommended that she be dismissed. In a letter to the Marion County School Board dated March 25, 1969, Mr. Robert Dunwoody, superintendent of schools for Marion County, detailed the charges which prompted the recommendation for Mrs. Blunt's dismissal:
In due course, the school board scheduled a hearing on Mrs. Blunt's dismissal for May 7, 1969. On May 2, Mrs. Blunt's attorney was provided with a bill of particulars respecting the charges against Mrs. Blunt.
To contradict this testimony, Mrs. Blunt testified that none of her supervisors had ever called her attention to the fact that she misspelled words, nor had anyone informed her that her plan book was inadequate. Further, she denied that she covered her mouth when she spoke or that she had been hostile to offers of assistance.
But perhaps the most crucial aspect of Mrs. Blunt's case was that she had always received satisfactory evaluations in the past, and that Mr. Broxton himself had rated her a competent teacher for the five school years immediately preceding the 1968-69 term. On cross examination by Mrs. Blunt's attorney, Mr. Broxton explained this seeming inconsistency in his evaluations of Mrs. Blunt's work. He stated that he had never considered Mrs. Blunt a competent teacher, but he had nevertheless rated her satisfactorily in the past because he felt that she had performed to the best of her limited ability. He characterized Mrs. Blunt as an adequate supervisor of children but an inadequate teacher. As a further explanation of why he had not recommended that Mrs. Blunt be dismissed in past years, Mr. Broxton noted that, prior to the 1968-69 term, replacement teachers had not been available, due to a limited job market and low teachers' salaries in the Marion County school system. These conditions changed in 1968-69, and, therefore, when Mrs. Blunt showed no interest in improving her performance, Broxton recommended that she be dismissed.
After hearing all of the foregoing evidence, the Marion County School Board voted unanimously to terminate Mrs. Blunt's employment contract. Mrs. Blunt then perfected an administrative appeal to the Florida State Board of Education, which ultimately affirmed the decision of the school board. Subsequently, a petition for writ of certiorari was filed in the Florida First District Court of Appeal, where relief was denied. Blunt v. State Board of Education (Fla.App., 1973), 275 So.2d 303. Failing in her efforts in the Florida judicial system, Mrs. Blunt brought this civil rights suit in federal court under 42 U.S.C., § 1983, raising constitutional issues not submitted to or decided in the state court litigation, see, e. g., England v. Louisiana State Board of Medical Examiners, 375 U.S. 411, 84 S.Ct. 461, 11 L.Ed.2d 440 (1964).
Our judicial review of Mrs. Blunt's claim that in her dismissal by the Marion County School Board she was denied substantive due process is circumscribed. For sound policy reasons, courts are loathe to intrude upon the internal affairs of local school authorities in such matters as teacher competency. Ferguson v. Thomas, 5 Cir. 1970, 430 F.2d 852, 858; Callahan v. Price, 5 Cir. 1974, 505 F.2d 83, 88; Lee v. Macon County Board of Education, 5 Cir. 1974, 490 F.2d 458, 460. Nevertheless, conceding that Mrs. Blunt held a "property" interest in her teaching contract worthy of due process protection,
Mrs. Blunt contends that her case falls within the range of Johnson v. Branch, 4 Cir. 1966, 364 F.2d 177, cert. denied, 385 U.S. 1003, 87 S.Ct. 706, 17 L.Ed.2d 542 (1967), where the Fourth Circuit held that minor infractions of school rules would not suffice to support
The testimony of Mrs. Blunt's supervisors at the school board hearing with respect to her incompetency was not only substantial, it was devastating. The only real question confronting the members of the board was that of determining whose testimony was credible. The members credited the testimony of the witnesses who appeared on behalf of the superintendent of schools. They rejected the testimony of Mrs. Blunt. The unavoidable result is that the decision of the Marion County School Board is supported by substantial evidence, and there was no lack of substantive due process.
The Equal Protection Claim
The second aspect of Mrs. Blunt's attack on her dismissal deals with the claim that she was discharged as a result of the school board's effort to voluntarily desegregate public school faculties in Marion County. The relevant facts are as follows:
In the spring of 1968, the superintendent of schools for Marion County issued a directive that all public schools in the county were to work toward desegregating their faculties. The goal sought in this desegregation effort was the eventual achievement in all schools of a two to one ratio of white to black teachers — a ratio compatible with HEW guidelines. During the 1967-68 school year, the faculty at Fessenden School was composed of 49 black teachers and only 2 white teachers.
In an effort to comply with the superintendent's directive, Mr. Broxton asked the teachers at Fessenden to attempt to find positions in other schools where the faculties had theretofore been predominantly white. Under this arrangement, when the teachers reported back to Mr. Broxton that they had obtained positions elsewhere, he would then attempt to fill the vacancies created.
During the process of the desegregation effort, the superintendent of schools for Marion County was committed to the principle that no teacher should be discharged in order to achieve the ratio established by HEW. Apparently this policy was adhered to, for no evidence was presented in the District Court that any faculty members were terminated in 1968 in order to advance the desegregation plan.
Because the desegregation effort at Fessenden had been so successful in the spring of 1968, Mr. Broxton determined that in the spring of 1969 no teacher transfers would be required in preparation for the 1969-70 school year. Instead, he felt that the target ratio of two white faculty members to each black member could be accomplished through the normal processes of attrition.
At the trial below, Mr. Broxton testified that Mrs. Blunt's lack of cooperation with respect to his desire to implement faculty desegregation at Fessenden was a factor taken into account by him in his evaluation of her work during the 1968-69 school year. He added, however, that she was not discharged because of this attitude.
In deciding the issue of whether Mrs. Blunt's dismissal was motivated by racial considerations, the District Court found
In testing Mrs. Blunt's claim that she was dismissed for reasons of race, we apply the standards set forth in United States v. Jefferson County Board of Education, 5 Cir. 1967, 380 F.2d 385, cert. denied sub nom., 389 U.S. 840, 88 S.Ct. 67, 19 L.Ed.2d 103.
Mrs. Blunt argues that under Jefferson the Marion County School Board was obligated to compare her qualifications with those of all other teachers in the system before she could be dismissed. However, Mrs. Blunt has failed to prove sufficient facts to bring her case under the Jefferson umbrella. In order for the Jefferson requirement of system-wide qualification comparisons to be activated, a showing must be made that the total professional staff is being reduced as a result of desegregation. In the case at bar, there was no indication whatsoever that cuts were made in the total professional staff of the Marion County School system in order to accomodate the desegregation effort. In fact, to the contrary, the superintendent of schools specifically stated that it was his policy that no teachers would be terminated in order to achieve the target ratios. Under these facts, Mrs. Blunt's claim must fail.
Turning next to the issue of whether Mrs. Blunt was dismissed on account of her race, we find ourselves in total agreement with the view of the District Court that considerations of race played no part in her discharge. This conclusion is borne out by the testimony of all the witnesses who appeared at the trial below, except for Mrs. Blunt. Choices of credibility are within the discretion and prerogative of the trial court, and will not be overturned by appellate second-guessing.
In addition, the charges which led to Mrs. Blunt's dismissal contained no mention of racial considerations, nor did the testimony heard by the school board reflect any bias toward Mrs. Blunt because of her unwillingness to participate in the school desegregation effort. The net effect of this leads us to conclude that the
Procedural Due Process Claims
The final thrust of Mrs. Blunt's constitutional attack is that she was denied procedural due process in the course of proceedings before the State Board of Education. On this point she asserts three separate claims of constitutional impropriety.
To better understand the procedural setting of this case, a chronology of the proceedings before the State Board of Education will be helpful.
Thereafter, Mrs. Blunt filed a petition for writ of certiorari in the Florida First District Court of Appeal. Prior to deciding the case, the District Court of Appeals ordered that the findings of fact prepared by the Marion County School Board be made a part of the record. On April 5, 1973, the First District Court of Appeal denied Mrs. Blunt's petition for certiorari. The Court held that no violations of the Florida Administrative Procedure Act had occurred in the course of proceedings before the State Board of Education, and that there was substantial evidence to support Mrs. Blunt's dismissal, Blunt v. State Board of Education (Fla.App., 1973), 275 So.2d 303.
In view of the numerous hearings and rehearings which have been conducted with respect to Mrs. Blunt's dismissal as hereinabove described, it is difficult to imagine how she has been denied the full benefit of procedural due process.
The second claim of denial of procedural due process is that the Marion County School Board failed to enter findings of fact in a timely manner after the May 7, 1969 dismissal hearing. This argument implies that procedural due process required the School Board to enter findings of fact after conducting the dismissal hearing. We need not reach or decide this point.
While Mrs. Blunt's appeal was pending before the State Board of Education, the County School Board, on February 7, 1972, made findings of fact based on the original hearing. These findings were not made a part of the record before the State Board but the Florida First District Court of Appeal ordered them incorporated in Mrs. Blunt's petition for certiorari and they are set forth in the opinion of the Court, 275 So.2d at 305, 306. Any disadvantage Mrs. Blunt may originally have incurred by not having findings was thus cured. The District Court of Appeal decided the question of the sufficiency of the evidence on the basis of these findings of fact and under appellant's theory of due process that is all that she was entitled to expect. Moreover, the United States District Court conducted its own evidentiary hearing and independently arrived at findings no different from those originally made.
The final procedural due process claim involves an allegation that Mrs. Blunt was deprived of "liberty" in the course of proceedings before the State Board of Education. Mrs. Blunt asserts that she was unjustly stigmatized by a report released by the State Board of Education, which stated that she had been dismissed under Florida Stat. § 231.36(6),
In Roth, the Supreme Court held that a public employee's Fourteenth Amendment "liberty" interests may be affected if he is discharged in such a manner as to damage his standing in the community or impose a disability on his prospects for future employment. In cases where dismissal from public employment has such an adverse effect, minimum procedural due process safeguards come into play. Hence, notice and a hearing must be afforded the employee in order to properly effectuate his dismissal.
Even if the report released by the State Board of Education cast such a stigma upon Mrs. Blunt's reputation as to infringe her Fourteenth Amendment interest in "liberty", the question remains as to whether she was afforded the minimum requirements of procedural due process after the release of the report. Under the facts of this case we unhesitatingly conclude that she was.
The report, about which Mrs. Blunt complains, was released shortly after the initial decision of the State Board of Education in March, 1971. Subsequent to this decision, Mrs. Blunt filed a petition for rehearing in which she alleged inter alia that the State Board had decided her case on the basis of an inapplicable statute. The Board granted Mrs. Blunt's petition for rehearing and subsequently reversed its previous decision. Furthermore, at a later date the State Board vacated all orders which it had previously entered with respect to her case. These steps afforded Mrs. Blunt adequate procedural due process. Whatever harm may have been visited upon her reputation, if any, by the State Board's initial order was subsequently cured by the later proceedings.
The judgment of the District Court is
Mrs. Keeney testified that she made five formal visits to Mrs. Blunt's classroom during the 1968-69 school year. On each of these visits she would spend between thirty minutes and two hours observing Mrs. Blunt's performance.
Since Singleton does not control this case, the appropriate judicial standard is United States v. Jefferson County Board of Education, supra, which was the immediate predecessor of Singleton in this Circuit.
Fla.Stat. § 231.36(6) (Supp.1975):
No hearing examiner shall, in any proceeding where he presided as hearing examiner or a factually related proceeding, participate or advise the agency in entering its order except through his recommended order.