Hortonville Joint School District No. 1 v. Hortonville Education Association

In Hortonville Joint School District No. 1 v. Hortonville Education Association (1976), teachers sued their school board, alleging that it violated their due process rights when it fired them for striking in direct violation of Wisconsin state law. The U.S. Supreme Court described the issue as whether the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment provided teachers with the right to have their dismissals reviewed by a body other than the school board. The Court held that the teachers were not entitled to an independent review of their dismissals. In its analysis, the Court indicated that the board’s actions satisfied the requirements of due process in part because the state legislature granted it broad rights to make policy decisions and manage the district’s affairs, including its sole authority to hire and dismiss teachers.

Facts of the Case

On March 18, 1974, following months of unsuccessful negotiations for a successor collective bargaining agreement, the Hortonville Education Association, a teachers union, went on strike in direct violation of state law. On March 20, the Hortonville Joint School District’s superintendent of schools sent a letter requesting the striking teachers to return to work. Three days later, the superintendent sent another letter, which informed the striking teachers that state law prohibited all public employees from striking and invited them to return to work. Despite their knowledge that participating in the strike was an illegal activity and grounds for dismissal, no teachers returned to work. The board then initiated disciplinary proceedings against the teachers, sending each one a notice of individual hearing times.

At the disciplinary hearing, the teachers, represented by counsel, informed the school board that they preferred to be treated as a group. The teachers argued that since they had a property right in their employment with the school board, it entitled them to review by an impartial decision maker and that the adversarial relationship between the parties caused by the strike rendered the board an improper tribunal. The board rejected the teachers’ arguments and dismissed the teachers.

The teachers sued the board for violating their due process rights for the same reasons they raised at their disciplinary hearing. A state trial court rejected the teachers’ arguments and upheld the board’s action. However, the Supreme Court of Wisconsin reversed in favor of the teachers, declaring that due process required that an impartial decision maker review the teachers’ dismissals and that the board’s interest in the outcome of the contract negotiations provided evidence sufficient to show that it was incapable of impartiality. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear an appeal insofar as the Supreme Court of Wisconsin relied on federal constitutional law in resolving the issue.

The Court’s Ruling

At the outset of its analysis, the U.S. Supreme Court was of the opinion that Wisconsin’s high court had erred when it crafted its own remedy, on the basis that the existing statutory remedy inadequately satisfied due process requirements. The Court maintained that the Due Process Clause did not guarantee the teachers an independent review of the termination of their employment. In fact, the Court acknowledged that the state legislature granted local boards and their officials broad power to direct school policy while managing district affairs. The Court thus explained that board power included the sole authority to hire and dismiss teachers and direct policy over this aspect of labor relations.

The Court reiterated the fact that board officials had warned the teachers about the consequences of their continued violation of the state law, repeatedly offered to continue their employment subject to ending the strike, and ultimately reached the decision to terminate the teachers’ employment based on their continued violation of state law. As such, the Court reasoned that the board did not have a personal or financial interest in the dismissal of the teachers, but rather was fulfilling its statutory obligation to manage and direct the district’s affairs. If anything, the Court asserted, ending the strike and resuming instruction was in the best interest of the district and its students. The Court concluded that the dismissal of teachers, who admittedly violated state law, fell within the board’s policy-making role as envisioned by the state legislature.

Hortonville remains an important case in education law insofar as the Supreme Court recognized the broad rights of school boards. In so doing, the Court ruled that decision makers such as school boards are not unconstitutionally impartial simply by knowing facts that they obtained through the fulfillment of their statutory duties.

Kathryn Ahlgren

See also Due Process Rights: Teacher Dismissal; Fourteenth Amendment; Teacher Rights; Unions

Legal Citations

  • Board of Regents v. Roth, 408 U.S. 564 (1972). 
  • Hortonville Joint School District No. 1 v. Hortonville Education Association, 426 U.S. 482 (1976). 
  • Morrisey v. Brewer, 408 U.S. 471 (1971).