Wake County school leaders weighing how to deal with loss of teacher tenure

Posted by T. Keung Hui on October 18, 2013 

How should the Wake County school system pick the more than 2,000 teachers who will be offered $5,000 raises over the life of their new four-year contracts?

And, if you're one of the teachers who gets the contract offer, should you say yes? Or should you say no and protect your tenure rights while you see if an expected court challenge by the N.C. Association of Educators prevails?

As you guys may have seen in today’s article, this is an issue that school districts across the state are confronting now that the General Assembly is phasing out tenure. The tone from Tuesday’s Wake County school board meeting was definitely oppose to removing tenure.

Click here for a handout from the board meeting laying out the process the school system is planning to use. Click here for a legal opinion Wednesday from the State Attorney General’s Office detailing who is eligible for the contracts.

Based on the AG’s opinion, everyone who falls under the state pay scale for teachers, such as guidance counselors and psychologists, has to be included among the pool who could get the new contracts.

School boards are required to offer four-year contracts with $5,000 raises to 25 percent of the teachers who’ve taught in their district for the last three years and who were rated as proficient under the state’s evaluation system

That means 2,108 of 8,432 teachers in the Wake school district are potentially eligible.

Over the next several months, school administrators will try to determine the mechanism for determining who will get the offers.

It’s likely that most of those teachers getting the offers have tenure, called career status in North Carolina. if they take the raises and the four-year contract, they give up tenure.

Tenured teachers who turn down the contracts or who aren’t offered one keep their career status until July 1, 2018 when tenure is totally eliminated statewide.

No new teachers are getting tenure so if they’re not offered the new four-year contract they’ll be on a one-year renewable contract.

Starting in July 2018, all teachers will get contracts of between one and four years that’s supposed to be based on their performance.

But for now, the big question is how to pick out the 2,108 teachers who will be referred to the school board for approval. The board can modify the list. Teachers have until June 30, 2014 to decide on the offer.

“There’s many more questions to this 25 percent process than answers, but we’re working diligently to get those answers,” Doug Thilman, assistant superintendent for human resources, told school board members Tuesday.

Determining proficiency may be harder than it seems. Statewide, 96.41 percent of classroom teachers were rated proficient.

School board attorney Jonathan Blumberg said that including non-classroom teachers such as guidance counselors means they’ll also have to figure out a way to determine how those people would be considered proficient.

School board member Jim Martin played attorney on Tuesday, giving his reasons for thinking the elimination of tenure was illegal. He also urged teachers not to accept the contracts.

“I have to be clear that I swore to uphold the U.S. Constitution as well as North Carolina state law and tenure has traditionally been seen as a property right,” Martin said. “And there’s plenty of case law to support that it is a property right that is supported by the U.S. Constitution so my sworn duty to uphold the Constitution says I can’t do this because a state law is against federal law.

Federal law will protect property rights. Tenure has always been seen as a property right and I think that it is pretty clear that the state legislation recognizes that because it looks to me like a rather devious way said if you do this four-year contract, you are voluntarily relinquishing your career status. If I voluntarily relinquish my property then I no longer have a property right. But if I don’t voluntarily relinquish it, then I should still have that property right.

So it’s pretty clear to me that in the language of this bill they knew they were pushing that constitutional statute and they’re really basically trying to bribe teachers into giving up their own constitutional rights. To anybody listening, my recommendation to teachers would be, ‘Don’t accept this and fight this on your constitutional grounds.’ I can’t fight it for you but this is a constitutional issue that should be fought because the state law is counter to the U.S. Constitution.”

Martin, a chemistry professor at N.C. State, also defended the use of tenure for public school teachers. Click here for an article earlier this year from Jane Stancill listing the reasons that a teacher with tenure can be fired.

“Tenure is so misunderstood by the vast majority of people in the legislature and the vast majority of people in particular,” Martin said. “It is not a guaranteed job for life, It is a due process set up to make sure that you can’t be terminated from employment other than for a select number of reasons.

Those select number of reasons have to do with performance. So it really is performance based pay. To be honest. the whole due process structure is to make sure you can’t be unduly dismissed.”

One of the points brought up is that new hires will no longer be given tenure. Also, teachers will lose their four-year contract and pay raises if they switch districts.

“There’s going to be a disincentive for a high-quality teacher to come into Wake County,” said school board vice chairwoman Christine Kushner.

Superintendent Jim Merrill echoed there’s no incentive for teachers to come from other districts while Thilman said it would impact Wake’s efforts to recruit the “best teachers” from neighboring counties.

School board member Kevin Hill, a retired teacher and principal, also voiced his disapproval with the elimination of tenure.

“I felt this legislation was ludicrous when it was passed,” Hill said. “I feel that strongly now after looking at this.”

Backers of the change say it provides meaningful education reform by basing job security and pay on performance. They say the old system of giving tenure and then basing pay on seniority rewarded ineffective teachers.

But Hill related back to the time when he was a teacher at a school that offered merit pay. Hill said that teachers taught behind closed doors instead of working collaboratively because of the merit pay.

Hill is all for the loss of tenure being struck down in the courts.

“As far as the legal aspects, I’m trusting and hoping that the professional organizations will do their due diligence and take this through the court system,” Hill said.

Hill said that in the past he extensively recruited out of state for Wake. But Hill says “we don’t have anything to offer in North Carolina now.”

“I’m hoping the General Assembly will talk with educators and look at the long-term consequences – both intended and unintended – of this legislation before it does irreparable harm that will take years and years and years to fix because kids can’t do fourth grade over gain or eighth grade over again,” Hill said.

School board member Tom Benton, also a retired teacher and principal, picked up on the “unintended consequences” of the loss of tenure. He said it creates “a very untenable situation to maintain an adequate teaching force.”

But, since it’s the law, Benton asked about the possibility of seeing if the Wake County Board of Commissioners would fund pay raises for more than the 25 percent who will be offered the new deals.

“We’re all very confident that more than 25 percent of our teaching staff are superior teachers,” Benton said.

Benton related back to his days as principal of Durant Road Middle School, where he had 38 nationally board certified teachers. He said he couldn’t imagine telling the majority of them they’re not good enough for the extra pay.

Blumberg said it would be complex setting up a merit pay system that excludes the 25 percent who are getting offers under the state law.

Amy Auth, a spokeswoman for state Senate leader Phil Berger, a Rockingham County Republican, said the gnashing of teeth by school districts and NCAE is misplaced.

“This is a classic example of what is wrong with the education administration and why they continue to fight meaningful reforms focused on helping students,” Auth said in a written statement. “Only in the warped world of education bureaucrats and union leaders could a permanent $5,000 pay raise for top-performing teachers be branded as a bad thing.”

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