ST. CHARLES COUNTY • The Francis Howell School Board didn’t violate state Rep. Bryan Spencer’s free speech rights when it fired him from his teaching job last year, a jury decided Friday.
The verdict capped a three-day trial on the Wentzville Republican’s legal challenge of his dismissal and the board’s refusal to give him an unpaid leave of absence while in the Legislature. He also sought monetary damages.
“The district administration, the board members and the children have been vindicated by the jury’s action,” board attorney Eric Banks said afterward.
Spencer, 46, said he was disappointed by the ruling but respected the jury’s decision.
“I’m going to continue to work hard for education and the children of the state of Missouri,” he said.
St. Charles County Circuit Judge Jon Cunningham still must rule on related issues such as whether the firing was based on competent evidence. Another Howell attorney, Cindy Ormsby, says it’s likely the judge also will rule in favor of the district.
Spencer’s attorney, Robert Herman, said in closing arguments that the board denied Spencer’s leave because of his conservative GOP views on educational issues.
“Bryan Spencer was treated differently from every other teacher who asked for a leave from this (Howell) administration since 2007,” Herman said.
Banks insisted that Spencer’s leave was rejected because he was breaking his contract committing him to work the full school year as a special education teacher. The board had no political motivation, Banks said.
“What he was asking for was not in the best interests of the schoolchildren,” Banks said.
Spencer who was first elected to the House in November 2012, wanted the leave to start when the Legislature began its 2013 session last January. He sought the leave because of a state law barring legislators from simultaneously holding other “lucrative office or employment” in government, including teaching. This year he’s seeking re-election.
Much of the trial dealt with the Missouri National Education Association, a teachers union usually allied with Democrats. Herman complained that the board for years granted leave to teachers so they could work full time as MNEA leaders and that Spencer should be treated the same. Other teachers obtained leave for other reasons.
He also alleged that Spencer’s leave was denied to curry favor with the teachers group and that the MNEA’s political committee had spent money to help some board members’ elections. “They practically owned this school district,” Herman said.
Banks asserted that the MNEA-related accusation was “a red herring.” He said the teachers group and its Howell affiliate didn’t oppose Spencer’s request for a leave.
Earlier, board members who voted to reject Spencer’s leave said the MNEA had nothing to do with their decision and didn’t lobby them on it.
District officials have said the MNEA leaders’ leaves were different because they spent their time on education issues.
Spencer wanted the leave so he could return to his Howell teaching job when his legislative tenure ended. He had been a teacher for 22 years.