The Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled Monday that the Minneapolis School District did not have sufficient evidence to support the dismissal of Patrick Exner, who was briefly principal at Washburn High School.
Shortly after Exner was hired last summer to lead the southwest Minneapolis school, he was accused in an anonymous e-mail of changing student test answers at the Hopkins charter school where he worked. He denied it before the district cut him loose in the first week of school.
Exner appealed the dismissal, requesting that the Court of Appeals review the school board's decision.
The court found that the School District failed to give an adequate explanation for Exner's ouster, and remanded the case back to the district, ordering it to make a stronger case for judicial review.
"We are very gratified by the Court of Appeals' decision because it confirms our belief that the Minneapolis public schools violated the law, and that there was no evidence to support its decision to terminate Mr. Exner's employment," said T. J. Conley, Exner's attorney. "We hope that the MPS … does the right thing in regard to Mr. Exner, whose spotless record over 24 years of service to students in Minnesota was unfairly tarnished by MPS' rush to judgment."
In response, the school board issued a statement saying it "stands behind its original decision regarding Mr. Exner."
"The court has given the school district the opportunity to make additional findings to support that decision," it said. "The court sent the matter back … on a technical issue, but in no way found that the board violated the law. We will comply with the court's decision … [and] consider the matter at [our] next meeting."
Exner was employed by Ubah Medical Academy in Hopkins when he applied for the principal job at Washburn, a post vacated by the reassignment of Carol Markham-Cousins. On July 31, 2013, he signed a contract with Minneapolis and agreed to a start date of Aug. 4.
The next day, school board members received an anonymous e-mail alleging that Exner had tampered with three Ubah students' test results. Minneapolis placed Exner on paid administrative leave the next day.
"The teacher witnessed that as students finished answering the questions on their Minnesota GRAD exam, Patrick Exner had them stop before submitting the exam, step aside, and allow him to take their place at the testing computer and spend an extended period of time reviewing their answers," the e-mail said. "What's more, Patrick Exner was witnessed changing students' responses as he reviewed their Minnesota GRAD reading exam."
On Sept. 5, Minneapolis school officials notified Exner that he was being fired.
In a separate action, Exner sued the district earlier this year alleging violations of the state data privacy act and defamation.
His dismissal led to criticism of the district for not doing more thorough background checks. This year, candidates for principal jobs at both Washburn and South were put through a daylong set of screening tests.
In May, the district named Rhonda Dean as Washburn's principal. She'd been principal at Andover High School for the past six years and previously spent 11 years as assistant principal at Wayzata High School.