24 February 2021

MDE Deducts Hefty Sum for Principal Without Valid Certificate

Late last month, the 30th Judicial Circuit Court for Ingham County released its opinion in Tecumseh Public Schools v. Michigan Department of Education.  The case involved the District’s appeal relative to a state funding deduction imposed after it employed an administrator lacking the prerequisites for an administrator certification.

The District hired Carl Lewandowski in 1997 to serve as principal, until he resigned at the end of the 2018-2019 school year.  Mr. Lewandowski applied for his administrator certificate in January of 2019 but failed to send all of the required documentation until April.  The Michigan Department of Education (MDE) issued his certificate in April and, shortly thereafter, sent a letter notifying the District that it would be imposing a state aid deduction of just under $66,000 due to Mr. Lewandowski’s employment as a principal without a valid permit or certificate.  The District appealed the decision in May – but was ultimately unsuccessful and sought further appeal to the circuit court.

Under MCL 380.1246, a school district cannot employ an administrator unless: (a) if the administrator was hired before 2010, the administrator completed certain continuing education requirements, or (b) if the administrator was hired after 2010, the administrator holds a valid Michigan school administrator’s certificate.  For the first scenario, the administrative rules require 150 hours of continuing education.  The District argued that the statute only prohibited employing an administrator who did not complete the continuing education requirements, and that employing an administrator without a valid certificate alone was not a violation of the statute.  However, the court concluded the statute was clear and unambiguous in its expectations — that the superintendent of public instruction promulgate rules establishing a minimum amount of continuing education requirements as conditions for employment, not that the statutory language itself constitutes the entire requirement.  Thus, the administrative rules were equally binding.  Here, the rules required an administrator to obtain a certificate, either through continuing education or otherwise.

In this case, Mr. Lewandowski did not meet the requirements of the rule.  Michigan Administrative Code Rule 380.103, opined the court, clearly mandated a minimum total of 150 hours in the 5 years prior for those individuals hired on before 2010.  Because Mr. Lewandowski had not provided any supporting documentation relative to his participation in continuing education totaling 150 hours in the prior 5 years, he was in violation of this requirement of employment.  The court affirmed MDE’s decision and dismissed the District’s appeal.

To avoid costly state aid deductions such as this one, districts should ensure they employ administrators with valid and updated certificates, where required, and remain in compliance with all relevant statutes and rules.  It is also vital to ensure there is a system in place to regularly monitor certification validity.  However, when specific rules apply, or how they will be interpreted by regulatory agencies, is not always clear.  Be aware of which rules and regulations apply in any given circumstance, and, as always, seek advice from legal counsel when unsure of your obligations.