Lawyers argue statewide teacher tenure case

jstancill@newsobserver.comMay 12, 2014 

— A judge could decide this week on a suit brought by teachers, who argue that the legislature’s action to end teacher tenure is unconstitutional.

Attorneys argued a teacher tenure lawsuit in a Wake County courtroom Monday. The case, brought against the state by six teachers and the N.C. Association of Educators, could affect the future employment rights of thousands of public school teachers across North Carolina.

The hearing came days after a judge ordered a preliminary injunction favoring the Guilford and Durham school districts, which brought a similar case against the state. The judge in the teachers’ case, Judge Robert Hobgood, said he would try to have a decision by Friday.

The lawsuit challenges the state law enacted last year that ends career status, known as teacher tenure, by 2018. The law directs school districts, in the meantime, to offer the top 25 percent of teachers four-year contracts and $500-a-year to relinquish their tenure status.

Since 1971, North Carolina teachers who made it beyond the first four years of a probationary period were granted career status, which gave teachers certain protections, including the right to a hearing in the event of dismissal. Republicans who voted to eliminate it said tenure was an impediment to firing incompetent teachers.

Narendra Ghosh, attorney for the plaintiff teachers, argued that eliminating tenure amounted to the taking of teachers’ property rights, a violation of the contract clause of the U.S. Constitution. He argued that repealing tenure served no educational purpose and was unnecessary for maintaining public education.

The tenure law had specified 15 reasons that can be used to dismiss tenured teachers, including inadequate performance, immorality, neglect of duty and a reduction in a district’s teaching force.

The teachers’ attorneys presented 18 affidavits, including eight sworn statements from current and former superintendents and board chairs about their experiences with teacher tenure.

“They demonstrate that the career status law does not prevent school districts from removing teachers for performance problems, and that school districts have all the tools they need already to address performance problems when they arise,” Ghosh argued.

Representing the state, Melissa Trippe, special deputy attorney general, said the case is an example of competing constitutional interests – teachers’ assertion of constitutional property rights versus the state’s power to legislate and the constitutional mandate for the state to protect education for children.

“The fact of the matter is that our legislature, for decades, has legislative power and has exercised that power over the educational system in the state, and most certainly they have the authority to do that in this instance,” Trippe said.

The legislative action may be unpopular with teachers, Trippe said. “But the point is our legislature is the one who sets policy based on the will of the people,” she said.

Trippe pointed out that the legislature made a number of changes to the education system last year. She argued that it “speaks volumes” that the teachers are relying on a 1938 Indiana case to support their argument. “People are looking for changes to the system that has been around for a long time,” she said.

NCAE President Rodney Ellis said teachers across the state are watching the case.

“I do believe that a number of these teachers are waiting, and this is going to be a determining factor in whether they stick with North Carolina in the future or whether they move to other states,” he said.

Stancill: 919-829-4559

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