John Lancellotta is a public school teacher in Rhode Island. For the 2018-2020 school years, John taught Spanish and Italian in the West Warwick School District, receiving overwhelmingly positive teacher evaluations. He received no complaints from students, parents, or coworkers.
Despite this, West Warwick Schools decided not to renew his contract – effectively firing him and denying him tenure. All because he exercised his First Amendment right to leave the union.
John contacted his union representative in February 2019 to inform him of his decision to leave. A few days later, the union representative asked to meet with John and his department head. The three met and agreed to the compromise that a part of John’s dues could go to student scholarships, rather than to the more typical political spending that John was uncomfortable with.
Another teacher evaluation was issued in November of 2019, with John again receiving “highly effective” or “effective” ratings in every category. John then made the decision to resign fully from the union in December 2019.
Four days later, John’s department head had a meeting with the district’s director of secondary schools. At that meeting, it was decided that West Warwick Schools would not renew John’s contract and would instead hire a replacement. The school board approved his non-renewal in a February 2020 meeting.
John decided to appeal this decision, but due to COVID the appeal did not occur until December 2020.
Witnesses at the appeal hearing included John’s former department head and other West Warwick school officials. All witnesses were instructed not to discuss the matter until the multi-day hearing was resolved, but it was later discovered that John’s former department head had conversations about the case with school officials and a union lawyer.
As the hearing continued, school officials stated that they had relied solely on John’s former department head’s recommendations in reaching the decision not to renew his contract. Additional documents later revealed that the West Warwick School District’s lawyers collaborated with the union’s lawyers regarding the school’s position at the hearing.
Following the hearing, John decided to file a lawsuit. He believes a pro-union administrator retaliated against him for his decision to leave the union by recommending his contract not be renewed. With nothing but good reviews, the district had no reason to terminate his contract. It relied on the department head’s recommendation, meaning that this was direct retaliation against John for exercising his First Amendment right to opt out.