Teaching Profession

This Teacher Is Suing Her District Over Working for Free, Buying School Supplies

By Madeline Will — November 26, 2019 4 min read
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Teachers everywhere have had to buy their own school supplies, or been asked to work beyond their contract hours. Now, a South Carolina teacher is taking those issues to court.

This summer, Shannon Burgess, a 6th grade English/language arts teacher, filed a lawsuit claiming that the Cherokee County school district required her to pay for necessary school supplies out of her own pocket and work for free at after-school events. The lawsuit is open for teachers across the state to join the class action.

“It has long been a pattern of practice throughout this nation and the state of South Carolina that school districts ... have unconscionably and impermissibly shifted operating costs of the classrooms directly on the financial backs of our teachers,” the lawsuit reads.

John Reckenbeil, Burgess’s attorney, said he expects the litigation to reach class-action status in the start of the new year. While he can’t sign other teachers on until then, he said there has been interest, especially on the issue of school supplies.

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This case isn’t saying that teachers shouldn’t have to pay for any supplies out of pocket, Reckenbeil said—but rather, they shouldn’t have to pay for supplies that are deemed essential to do their job.

“If a teacher is required to literally pay for copy paper, and they have to go make copies of tests that are mandatory under state law, ... then I think that copy paper is going to fall under a category that is mandatory for a teacher to do their job,” he said. “It’s not going to be stuff that is arbitrary or stuff that they want to have, like orange thumbtacks for a Thanksgiving bulletin board.”

The lawsuit alleges that the district has a budget for supplies and materials, but Burgess was still asked to pay for items that would benefit her employer—which cut into her paycheck.

National data show that 94 percent of public school teachers spent their own money on classroom supplies without reimbursement during the 2014-15 school year. On average, these teachers spent $479. Many teachers told Education Week that they felt obligated to purchase supplies because otherwise, their students would go without.

‘Taking Advantage of Our Professionalism’

Burgess alleges that she was required to sell concessions at after-school sporting events—time that was outside of her contract hours and that she wasn’t paid for. She also claimed that her principal required all teachers to purchase a gift basket that would be auctioned off to benefit the parent-teacher organization.

In a statement provided to WIS News, the Cherokee County district said it could not comment on specific allegations, but it thanked teachers for their willingness to “go the extra mile” for their students.

But to Sherry East, the president of the South Carolina Education Association, this is an example of districts “taking advantage of our professionalism.” And it happens all the time, she said.

“Nobody was shocked” at the lawsuit, she said. Instead, educators thought, “someone finally is taking it to the next level. We get calls about similar things every day. Teachers are doing extra duties that are not academic duties. ... A lot of teachers are buying their own paper.”

For instance, teachers are often asked to be present at after-school events, or even bake for fundraisers or events, said Lisa Ellis, a high school journalism teacher in Blythewood, S.C., and the founder of the grassroots teachers’ group, SCforED.

“Teachers always do what’s in the best interest of students, and so the status quo has been able to take advantage of that,” she said.

Poor working conditions are partially why so many teachers are leaving the profession, East said. Last year alone, more than 5,300 South Carolina teachers left the classroom.

“Teachers are like, ‘We’ve had enough. I just can’t do anything else for you,’” she said. “It’s time to stand up. ... I hope [the lawsuit] will be an eye-opener for the whole state, that this isn’t an isolated incident, that it’s common practice.”

In May, thousands of teachers across the state of South Carolina left their classrooms to protest at the state legislature for a pay raise and smaller class sizes. The legislature raised teacher starting pay, gave an across-the-board 4 percent pay raise, and gave early-career teachers an up to 10 percent raise.

In the coming legislative session, East said the state education association’s priorities are an additional 5 percent across-the-board pay raise and improvements in working conditions. They’re asking for elementary teachers to get 30 minutes a day of duty-free time, lower class sizes, and fewer required tests.

“Teachers have been dumped on here for a long time,” she said. “You wouldn’t ask a mechanic to fix your car for free. ... Yet we think it’s OK for teachers to do stuff all the time off the clock for free. All of the non-academic stuff that gets dumped on teachers is really starting to weigh” on us.

Reckenbeil said he hopes this lawsuit is a chance for teachers to get some relief without waiting for legislative action. The lawsuit is seeking an award of unpaid wages and restitution of money used to buy mandated items for all those in the class action.

“This is just really a point in time where [teachers] have to have an advocate fighting for them, and they’ve been getting screwed, I think,” he said.

Image via Getty

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.