Judge halts new state-mandated teacher contracts in Durham, Guilford counties

lbonner@newsobserver.com khui@newsobserver.com jalexander@newsobserver.comApril 23, 2014 

— A Superior Court judge on Wednesday put a halt, in at least two school systems, to the state’s mandate on giving raises to teachers who give up tenure.

Special Superior Court Judge Richard Doughton issued a preliminary injunction in a lawsuit brought by the Guilford and Durham school boards, granting their request to put new state-mandated contracts on hold. They argued the law outlining the process, passed last year by the General Assembly, is unconstitutional.

Doughton also ruled against the state’s motions to dismiss the lawsuit.

The contracts are part of a state law that eliminates tenure, called career status in North Carolina, for all public school teachers by 2018. In the meantime, school districts are required to offer four-year contracts to 25 percent of their teachers that provide $500-a-year raises in return for educators’ surrendering their tenure rights.

It is unclear, however, how the order will affect other school districts. Doughton has not yet signed a written order on the injunction, but one is expected next week.

Jill Wilson, the lawyer for the school districts, said she would not talk about the order’s effect on counties other than the two plaintiffs.

Durham school board vice chairwoman Minnie Forte-Brown said she was sitting in her car when she found out the news. She said she was so excited she screamed, “Yes!”

“I appreciate (Guilford County’s) boldness and fearlessness and Durham Public Schools is proud to stand with Guilford,” Forte-Brown said. “I hope this action encourages those school boards to stand up and fight for what’s right.”

The decision represents another setback for new education laws passed last year. In a separate case, a Superior Court judge put a freeze on a new voucher program that would offer eligible families up to $4,200 a year to help parents pay their children’s private school tuition.

The office of Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger said it would appeal Doughton’s order. Berger, a Rockingham County Republican, was a major booster of eliminating tenure.

“It is hard to fathom why a single judge and a small group of government bureaucrats would try to deny top-performing teachers from receiving a well-deserved pay raise,” Amy Auth, a spokeswoman for Berger, said in a written statement. “We will appeal this legal roadblock and continue to fight for pay increases for our best teachers.”

But school boards around the state have opposed the new contracts with resolutions. Guilford and Durham sued. Teachers from across the state have promised not to take the deal if it’s offered.

Forte-Brown and Durham school board Chairwoman Heidi Carter have said the new contracts are disrespectful to teachers and could hurt public education. Teachers came to multiple school board meetings and spoke out against the contracts. They also held rallies and wrote letters opposing the changes.

In addition to the legal action taken by the two school systems, the N.C. Association of Educators has filed its own lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of eliminating tenure.

Wilson raised a number of legal arguments that had at their core the constitutionality of taking vested tenure from teachers. Opponents also argued the law is unconstitutionally vague, she said.

“The boards of education believe that by carrying out the mandate, they would be violating their oath of office to uphold the constitution,” Wilson said.

“They believe vested tenure cannot be taken retroactively.”

Ann McColl, a lawyer with the N.C. Association of Educators, said the scope of the ruling will be clearer with a written order.

But there’s a strong argument for ordering a statewide halt, she said, because the law applies to the entire state.

“It would be within the authority of the judge that the injunction is enjoining the state from enforcing the law,” she said. “Until there’s a written order, we don’t know for sure.”

Until the scope of the injunction becomes clear, Wake County school board Chairwoman Christine Kushner said, she expects the district will continue following the law’s requirements. Contracts have to be offered to teachers so they can make a decision by June 30.

Instead of joining the lawsuit, Wake passed a resolution urging the General Assembly to rescind the contract requirement.

“We stand by our resolution that we want the legislation to be rescinded,” Kushner said.

Bonner: 919-829-4821

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