Tennessee Supreme Court Upholds Transfer of West Tennessee Assistant Principal

June 15, 2020

The Tennessee Supreme Court today upheld the transfer of a West Tennessee assistant principal to a teaching position at another school. The Court held that the plaintiff assistant principal, a tenured teacher, did not prove that the transfer violated Tennessee’s Teacher Tenure Act.

Stephen Geller worked as an educator in Henry County for many years. In 2006, he became an assistant principal at the Henry County High School. Four years later, in 2010, Samuel Miles became the Director of the Henry County School System. In 2012, Director Miles learned Mr. Geller did not have an “administrator” license. The process for getting an administrator license trains school administrators in “instructional leadership.” Every other assistant principal in the Henry County School System had an administrator license.

Director Miles decided Mr. Geller could not continue as an assistant principal without an administrator license, so he reassigned Mr. Geller to a teaching position at another school. Mr. Geller worked in the teaching position for a year and then retired.

Mr. Geller filed a lawsuit against the Henry County Board of Education and Director Miles in the Chancery Court for Henry County. The lawsuit claimed the transfer violated the Teacher Tenure Act because it was not necessary. Under Board of Education regulations, school administrators only need an administrator license if their duties involve more than 50 percent instructional leadership. Mr. Geller claimed his duties at Henry County High School had not been more than 50 percent instructional leadership, so Director Miles had no reason to remove him as assistant principal.

After a trial, the chancery court affirmed Director Miles’ decision to reassign Mr. Geller. Mr. Geller appealed that decision to the Tennessee Court of Appeals, which reversed. The Court of Appeals noted that Director Miles had made no effort to find out whether Mr. Geller’s job duties at the Henry County High School had involved more than 50 percent instructional leadership, so Director Miles had no basis to conclude that Mr. Geller needed an administrator license or that reassigning him was necessary.

The Tennessee Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals. It observed that much of Director Miles’ trial testimony stressed how important it is for school systems to have school administrators engaged in instructional leadership. He described instructional leadership as key to the success of schools. Director Miles testified that, soon after he became the Director of the Henry County Schools, he received a letter from the state noting that the Henry County High School—where Mr. Geller was assistant principal—was in the bottom 10 percent in achievement. Remedying that situation was a priority, Director Miles said, and that required school administrators who were trained and spending most of their time on instructional leadership.

The Court noted that the Board of Education regulation cited by Mr. Geller required assistant principals engaged in more than 50 percent instructional leadership to have an administrator license. Mr. Geller did not have an administrator license, so the regulation would not allow him to spend more than 50 percent of his time on instructional leadership. Teacher transfer decisions look forward, not backward. Director Miles did not need to investigate whether Mr. Geller’s past duties involved more than 50 percent instructional leadership. He knew that, without an administrator license, Mr. Geller could not carry out Henry County’s priority on instructional leadership in the upcoming school year, so the reassignment was justified.

The Court affirmed the trial court and reversed the Court of Appeals. It upheld Director Miles decision to reassign Mr. Geller and dismissed Mr. Geller’s lawsuit.

To read the unanimous opinion in Stephen P. Geller v. Henry County Board of Education, authored by Justice Holly Kirby, go to the opinions section of TNCourts.gov.