A Missouri judge has ruled that a small district outside Kansas City was not allowed to give bonuses to attract and keep teachers.
In a Jan. 15 ruling, Cass County Circuit Court Judge Joseph Dandurand found in favor of the local affiliate of the National Education Association and three teachers who had contended in a lawsuit that the bonuses were illegal and unfair.
The suit has its origins in the summer of 2001, when the 900-student Sherwood-Cass school district decided to offer $1,000 to $2,000 bonuses, called “commitment fees,” to seven teachers to get them to sign two-year contracts. The bonuses went to six new teachers and one already employed in the district.
Filed on behalf of all the district’s teachers who did not receive the bonuses, the suit argued that the payments violated the Missouri Teacher Tenure Act, the state law that requires a school board to approve a salary schedule for all teachers.
“The district said the bonuses were needed to attract and retain quality teachers, but there was no evidence these were teachers more deserving than any others,” said Sally Barker, a lawyer for the Sherwood National Education Association.
“We agree districts should give money through compensation to attract good teachers,” she added. “But the compensation needs to be given fairly to all teachers who qualify for it. The best way to attract teachers is to treat them fairly and compensate fairly.”
The district’s superintendent, Margret Anderson, said the district planned to appeal the decision.
“We were looking for a way not only to attract but keep quality teachers,” said Ms. Anderson, who was not the top administrator at the time the commitment fees were given. “If the teachers only stay one year, it’s hard for them to have an impact,” she said. “They would have had to pay back the money if they left before two years.”
A Widespread Problem
The lawsuit spotlights the predicament faced by many small and rural districts of having to compete with larger districts for high-quality teachers, especially as school systems try to meet the federal mandate on teacher quality contained in the No Child Left Behind Act.
It is also illustrative of the kinds of obstacles that districts are likely to face if they want to pay teachers more money to work in hard-to-staff schools or teach subjects experiencing educator shortages.
A spokesman for the Missouri State Teachers Association, an independent teachers’ organization, said the case was important in establishing what districts should and shouldn’t do to attract teachers.
“What are the creative ways to attract teachers?” asked Todd Fuller.
“That’s the issue we need to think about for the small districts that are not only losing teachers, but losing community. It looks like [Sherwood- Cass officials] had the wrong way to go about it.”
Mr. Fuller said other avenues for enticing teachers can be pursued.
“Sometimes, there’s leeway on a salary schedule to bring teachers in at a higher level,” he said. “I don’t know if money is always the primary enticement for those teachers. Maybe it’s allowing them to come into rural districts and have freedom to work on professional development.”
As it now stands, acquiring the appropriate professional development and continuing education isn’t always an easy prospect, he said. For instance, the Sherwood-Cass district, in Creighton, Mo., is about a 45-minute drive from Kansas City, where higher education institutions are located. Teachers may find it inconvenient to attend classes, Mr. Fuller noted.
Ms. Barker, the lawyer for the Sherwood NEA, said financial incentives are a fine idea for attracting teachers if executed fairly.
“It’s the way this district went about it,” Ms. Barker asserted. “They used the signing bonuses to play favorites, which is exactly what the Teacher Tenure Act was designed to prevent.”
A version of this article appeared in the January 28, 2004 edition of Education Week as Court Says No to Bonuses To Attract Teachers