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Peninsula School District v. Public School Employees of Peninsula

October 3, 1996


Appeal from Superior Court, Pierce (94-2-12963-1) County; Honorable Thomas R. Sauriol, Judge. Judgment Date: 2-24-95.

Barbara A. Madsen, J., James M. Dolliver, Charles Z. Smith, Charles W. Johnson, Richard B. Sanders, J.j., Concurring. Gerry L. Alexander, J. (dissenting by separate opinion) Barbara Durham, C.j., Richard P. Guy, Philip A. Talmadge, J.j., Dissenting.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Madsen


MADSEN, J. -- At issue in this case is whether a school district's decision not to renew a bus driver's contract may lawfully be subject to a justifiable cause requirement in a collective bargaining agreement negotiated by the bus drivers' bargaining unit. We conclude that such a term does not conflict with RCW 28A.400.300(1) and reverse the trial court's grant of summary judgment.


Pat Scott was employed as a bus driver for the Peninsula School District in Pierce County from 1980 until 1994. Scott belonged to a bargaining unit of classified employees represented by the Public School Employees of Peninsula, Bus Driver Unit (PSE). The District usually issued notices toward the end of each school year informing its bus drivers of the probability of being rehired for the following school year. In June 1994, the District's transportation director's 1993-94 evaluation of Scott described her performance as unacceptable and recommended that she not be retained as a district employee. In July, the District's superintendent wrote Scott that he intended to recommend to the Board of Directors that her employment not be renewed. He also invited her to attend a hearing on the matter.

Scott and a PSE representative met with the superintendent and again with the Board of Directors and argued that since "just cause" was required to discharge Scott and no such cause had been given, she was entitled to grievance and arbitration provisions in the 1992-1994 collective bargaining agreement that PSE had negotiated with the District. Clerk's Papers (CP) at 27. The agreement contains no express reference to a nonrenewal, but states that an employee "shall be disciplined or discharged only for justifiable cause." CP at 48. The District responded that just cause was not needed since Scott's termination was a nonrenewal at the end of the school year rather than a discharge during the year.

In August, the District sent Scott a letter informing her of its decision not to "re-employ" her for the coming school year. CP at 61. The District added that Scott had no collective bargaining rights to contest its decision since she was terminated following, rather than during, the school year.

Scott and PSE then filed a grievance, alleging lack of just cause for her nonrenewal. When the District declined to recognize the grievance on the grounds that it fell outside the provisions of the collective bargaining agreement, PSE filed a demand for arbitration with the American Arbitration Association. In response, the District sought a declaratory judgment in Pierce County Superior Court. The court granted the District's motion for summary judgment, declaring that Scott possessed no right to continued employment beyond the one-year term permitted under RCW 28A.400.300(1) and that the decision not to renew Scott's contract vested exclusively with the District's Board of Directors. The court added that nothing in the collective bargaining agreement could modify Scott's one-year term of employment and that the District's decision not to renew Scott's contract was not subject to the grievance and arbitration provisions of the collective bargaining agreement.

PSE and Scott then appealed the trial court's decision directly to this court.


The first issue is whether a school district may negotiate a collective bargaining agreement that contains a just cause restriction on the district's ability to terminate classified employees that is enforceable beyond the employees' statutory one-year term of employment.

The District contends that any such restriction on its nonrenewal authority conflicts with RCW 28A.400.300(1), which provides as follows:

Every board of directors, unless otherwise specially provided by law, shall:

(1) Employ for not more than one year, and for sufficient cause discharge all certificated and noncertificated employees[.]

The trial court agreed with the District's position, observing first that Scott had been nonrenewed rather than discharged and that the just cause requirement in RCW 28A.400.300(1) thus did not apply. The court held further that a collective bargaining agreement provision requiring just cause for nonrenewal would create a continuing contract right in violation of RCW 28A.400.300(1). This statutory provision would be violated because the school district could not agree to a collective bargaining agreement term that granted Scott a right to employment for a period longer than one year.

As support for its decision, the trial court cited Butler v. Republic Sch. Dist., 34 Wash. App. 421, 661 P.2d 1005 (1983). In Butler, bus drivers argued that the District had to show sufficient cause for their termination at the end of the school year under the "just cause" provision in RCW 28A.400.300(1) (then codified as RCW 28A.58.100). The Court of Appeals disagreed, stating that the statute "unambiguously limits the length of school district employment contracts to 1 year." 34 Wash. App. at 422.

If we were to hold that [RCW 28A.400.300] requires sufficient cause for dismissal at the end of the contract year, we would negate the 1-year limitation imposed by the Legislature. School district employees, for all practical purposes, would have continuing contracts. In order to give effect to the 1-year limitation, the sufficient cause requirement must be read to apply only to dismissals occurring during the school year. Butler, 34 Wash. App. at 422-23; see also Clark v. Central Kitsap Sch. Dist. 401, 38 Wash. App. 560, 562, 686 P.2d 514 (citing Butler statement that statute unambiguously limits employee's term to one year, subject only to discharge during the year for sufficient cause), review denied, 103 Wash. 2d 1006 (1984). The court noted further that any implied agreement for permanent employment of classified employees would be ultra vires as a matter of law. The Butler court expressly declined to resolve whether collective bargaining agreements containing terms that limit a district's authority to nonrenew would also be ultra vires because no collective bargaining agreement was before the court. Butler, 34 Wash. App. at 425 n.5.

Unlike the circumstances in Butler, this case presents the question of whether provisions in collective bargaining agreements can limit a district's authority to nonrenew. For the reasons set forth below, we find that the restrictions of RCW 28A.400.300(1) can and must be harmonized with RCW 41.56 and the provisions of a collective bargaining ...

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