A state appeals court ruled Friday the State Board of Education had the legal right to fire Susan Salatto as president of Southern Union State Community College during a statewide shakeup of Alabama's 2-year colleges.
The unanimous decision by the Court of Civil Appeals reversed a lower court ruling that said Salatto's firing was improper.
"This is a big one," said former 2-year college Chancellor Bradley Byrne, who recommended the school board fire Salatto. He said the ruling makes it clear that presidents work at the pleasure of the State Board of Education and are not covered by the state dismissal law that applies to the faculty and staff.
Byrne asked the board to fire Salatto in January 2008 and the board agreed after an investigation revealed problems with nepotism, discrimination and mismanagement at Southern Union, which has campuses in Wadley, Valley and Opelika.
Salatto said the problems existed before she became president and she contested her firing. In court, she contended she should have received a dismissal hearing under Alabama's Fair Dismissal Act for educators and that she was entitled to return to her old position as a dean. An administrative hearing officer and Montgomery County Circuit Judge William Shashy ruled in her favor, prompting the school board to appeal.
The appeals court said Alabama's Fair Dismissal Act applies to employees of 2-year colleges, but presidents aren't covered because they are employees of the State Board of Education rather than the colleges.
Writing for the court, Judge Craig Pittman said Salatto "had long ceased to be an employee of Southern Union who could claim any FDA rights, and she cannot properly tack on any previous employment experience in qualifying employment to obtain FDA rights in a wholly different area."
Salatto's attorney, Bill Patty of Montgomery, said the ruling was disappointing. He said he will ask the court to reconsider and, if it won't, he will appeal to the Alabama Supreme Court.
Byrne became chancellor of Alabama's 2-year college system in May 2007 in the wake of a bribery scandal involving former Chancellor Roy Johnson. A federal investigation resulted in convictions or guilty pleas from several college officials, including Johnson, and three legislators. At the same time, the system was beset with allegations of management problems.
Byrne recalled Friday that by the time he ended his 2-year tenure in May 2009, half of Alabama's 2-year colleges had new presidents, mostly through resignations and retirements.
While Salatto's appeal was pending, the Legislature rewrote the Fair Dismissal Act in May to make it clear presidents are not covered, but the change applied to future firings.
By PHILLIP RAWLS