Public school districts are government bodies. Because of this, their decisions are government actions and thus are limited by the constitutional rights of the persons affected. Public school employees enjoy broad constitutional protection in their district’s hiring and firing decisions. In addition, most public school employees have union contracts that give them additional job protection.
Recently, a Pennsylvania school district was frustrated to find that it was not justified in firing a school janitor who was found to be using marijuana in her private time. It was undisputed in the case that the janitor never used marijuana at the school or carried any with her while working.
The janitor’s drug use was discovered when the school district requested that she submit to blood testing as part of its standard school employment policy. She refused initially, and then called in sick several days in a row. She finally submitted to drug testing approximately 24 days after the initial request. She tested positive for marijuana use and was fired.
Under her union contract, she was entitled to a grievance procedure, which she pursued. In the grievance procedure, the district focused on its entitlement to fire employees for “just cause,” but because “just cause” was not defined in the contract, the grievance arbitrator was entitled to decide exactly what the term meant. The arbitrator decided that a school janitor’s smoking marijuana at home did not affect the “core function” of the school district and thus did not constitute “just cause,” and he reinstated the janitor to her job.
The district appealed the arbitrator’s decision and lost. The court found that because the district did not define “just cause” in the union contract, it was up to the arbitrator to decide what the term meant. All school districts can fire employees for “incompetence, neglect of duty, violation of law or other improper conduct.” But because the janitor’s conduct did not meet any of those standards, and because the union contract gave her the “limited job security” of the just-cause clause that effectively restricted the district from firing her at will, she was entitled to keep her job unless the arbitrator found that just cause existed for her firing.
School districts and unions can make their contracts as general or as specific as they choose. In light of this recent case, Pennsylvania school districts returning to the bargaining table in the upcoming years may feel the need to specify the meaning of “just-cause” clauses in their contracts.