CHARLESTON – A West Virginia bus driver who was suspended for leaving children on a bus unattended recently lost his appeal to the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals claiming that the Board of Education of Braxton County was unfair by not offering a continuing contract.
Steven Louk, a bus driver since 1994, was hired by the Braxton County in 2013. In spring of 2014, Louk, while under a probationary contract, was suspended without pay for leaving his school bus unattended while it was running with students on board.
Louk’s behavior was deemed “unsatisfactory” and “totally unacceptable and dangerous to the students in Braxton County” and failed to complete a year of “acceptable” employment, according to the court's memorandum decision.
The word “acceptable” later became a key point of distinction in this case.
“Statutory language is less than crystal clear and thus subject to differing interpretations,” Rick Boothby, an attorney representing the Board of Education of Braxton County, told The West Virginia Record.
Timing also impacted the case since Louk’s suspension started after the deadline for school boards to make their decisions about not renewing a probationary employee like Louk.
“Mr. Louk’s long suspension started after that date, depriving the school board of the opportunity to non-renew his probationary contract,” Boothby said.
The board of education kept Louk for the 2014-15 school year, however additional information regarding Louk’s conduct came out in an investigation later in the year, causing the board to not renew Louk’s contract for the 2015-16 school year.
At that point, Louk requested a hearing with an administrative law judge with a Grievance Board. The Grievance Board ruled that Louk had completed an acceptable year of employment due to having worked 145 days of the 2013-14 school year prior to suspension, and that the board not terminate Louk and instead hired him for the following school year. The hearing determined Louk should have received continuing contract status for the 2014-15 school year, which then found that the board of education failed to comply with West Virginia Code by not renewing Louk’s 2015-16 contract.
The board of education decided to file with the circuit court.
Rebecca Tinder, attorney representing the Board of Education of Braxton County, said that the issue came down to whether Louk completed one year of "acceptable" employment.
The circuit court found that the Grievance Board’s ruling was “clearly wrong” and reversed the decision. The ruling found that the Grievance Board did not take into consideration the Board of Education’s standard for acceptable performance. Louk’s suspension meant that he “did not ‘finish’ the 2013-14 school year, and his suspension illustrates that his performance was not ‘tolerated or allowed,’” according to the decision.
“After the circuit court adopted our reasoning and reversed the Grievance Board’s decision, I felt that our chances at the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals were fairly good,” Boothby said.
Louk then appealed his case to the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals claiming that the circuit court erred in its ruling and that he had in fact completed a year of acceptable employment. The court of appeals did not rule in Louk’s favor and instead affirmed the circuit court’s ruling.