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Published in Print: December 13, 2000, as Teachers Warned Against Breaching Contracts

Teachers Warned Against Breaching Contracts

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Sheila Williams and Donald Eisloeffel were expecting a change for the better this school year. Late last spring, they accepted teaching jobs in one of South Carolina's highest-paying districts, opting to leave behind similar positions in one of the state's poorest counties.

Instead, they find themselves working as substitute teachers, and a state school board hearing this week could determine if they wrongly broke their contracts with the school system they both left. If so, they could lose their teaching licenses for up to a year.

While the severity of their predicament is still relatively rare, it's also a sign of the times. As the competition to lure enough qualified teachers intensifies, districts are becoming sticklers about ensuring that teachers honor their work agreements. From the Palmetto State to the Pacific Northwest, schools are making clear that teachers who breach their contracts could face tough consequences.

Julie Underwood

"Districts are now enforcing this, whereas in the past, they said, 'That's all right, we'll let you go,' " said Julie Underwood, the general counsel for the National School Boards Association. "Right now, because of the teachers shortage, that's not an option. When you lose somebody, it's much more difficult to find a replacement."

An Old Tool

Although education groups are now hearing more about the practice, the authority of districts to rein in teachers who jump ship after signing their work agreements is nothing new. Generally, teachers are offered renewed contracts in the spring, and are given a matter of weeks or months to let their employers know if they plan to stay.

In many states, that timeline is backed up by statutes permitting districts to file complaints with the state to seek license revocations against educators who wait too long to give notice. A one-year revocation often is the maximum penalty a state can impose. Texas statute, for example, requires that educators notify their employers no later than 45 days before the beginning of the school year if they plan to leave.

Like many systems in the Lone Star State, however, the Fort Worth district historically has not enforced that provision. If a few teachers wanted to leave, the thinking went, it made little sense to stand in their way, explained Mauro Serrano, the associate superintendent for human resources for the 78,000-student district.

But this past summer, Fort Worth officials decided they couldn't be so lenient after receiving dozens of requests from teachers looking to escape their contracts a few weeks before the beginning of the school year. So the district spread the word that it was ready and willing to ask the state to suspend the licenses of teachers who left on such short notice.

"If there was an unusual hardship or circumstance, like if a husband or wife got promoted and had to move across the state, we would consider that," Mr. Serrano said. "But in general, it was an issue of we've got a contract, and we have to have a certified teacher in the classroom at the beginning of school."

Evidence that a growing number of districts nationwide are acting similarly is largely anecdotal. But some teachers' unions report a jump in the number of calls they are getting from members upset because they have been told they cannot get out of their contracts.

Officials with the California Teachers Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association, say they've received as many as 30 such calls in each of the past couple of years, while several years ago, they didn't receive any. Leaders of the Washington Education Association, another NEA affiliate, say they were inundated with similar inquiries around the beginning of this school year.

"People call sobbing," said Jerry Painter, the WEA's general counsel. "They have a for-sale sign in front of their house, and they've told their in-laws that they're moving. And then they're told, 'We will get your certificate pulled.'"

More Bark Than Bite?

Compared with the increase in the number of teachers complaining of such threats, the number whose licenses actually have been suspended remains small in many places. The Fort Worth schools wound up not filing any breach-of-contract complaints this year, even after making the point that they could, administrators there said. And despite the many calls received by the WEA, the Washington state education department reports handling just five cases this year that dealt with teachers' breaking their contracts.

License suspension appears to be a bit like a nuclear weapon: The threat posed is ominous, but there are many compelling reasons not to trigger it. Every revoked license removes a teacher from the workforce. And some officials warn that the reputation created by an overly strict approach could backfire by dissuading teachers from applying for work in a district.

Larry Nyland

"If we are too rigorous in protecting the rights of the district, then we run the risk of being perceived as being uncaring and insensitive to legitimate teacher needs," said Larry Nyland, the human-resources director of the 18,000- student Highline schools in Washington state. "So we don't want to be too Draconian and unfair to our teachers, but we also want to be fair to the students and the taxpayers who are expecting a level of quality in the classroom."

Mr. Nyland's practice has been to allow teachers to get out of contracts once the district finds a replacement.

But some districts believe that taking tough action sends an important message. The 60,000-student Greenville, S.C., school system made a point this year of ensuring that it didn't lose teachers just before the school year began.

The district's approach was two-fold. It announced in the spring that teachers who gave notice of their departures early enough would continue to receive health benefits until the beginning of August; otherwise, the district would stop them when the school year ended in June. In addition, district administrators made clear that, barring extenuating circumstances, they would take action to suspend the credentials of teachers who departed after July 1.

And Greenville kept its promise, persuading the state to take action against about 20 teachers who left after that deadline. Said G. Pat Mitchell, the district's executive director of human resources: "We felt we had no choice but to put some teeth into the employment arrangement."

'You Can't Teach Anywhere'

Another South Carolina system that has refused to give up its employees lightly is the 3,000- student Jasper County schools, which serve a largely low-income community between the Georgia border and the more affluent Beaufort County, S.C. This year, the Jasper schools filed complaints with the state about six such breaches of contract, including those of Ms. Williams and Mr. Eisloeffel, who both left to work in Beaufort.

Charles Boyken, a lawyer for the Jasper district, said last week he would not discuss the details of the case he plans to make at the state school board hearing this week. "The state law is very clear that, in fact, a school district has an obligation to notify the state whenever a teacher doesn't honor their contract," he said.

But a lawyer representing Ms. Williams and Mr. Eisloeffel countered that both teachers thought they were following the rules when they notified Jasper school officials in late May that they were taking jobs elsewhere.

In fact, though district officials say teachers are supposed to submit such notification by the beginning of May, the lawyer, Deena S. McRackan, contends that the two educators were told by administrators at their schools that they had until June. Although remaining in Beaufort while awaiting their hearing, the teachers' new district changed their status to that of substitute teachers—and reduced their pay accordingly—after hearing they had not been released by their former district.

Regardless of the particulars the two lawyers are to argue over, Ms. McRackan sees a basic point underlying such cases: "What the district is trying to do is to say, 'If you don't teach here, you can't teach anywhere,' which is not going to help anyone."

Vol. 20, Issue 15, Page 3

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