Garner Cleveland Record

Wake County school board looking to restore tenure rights for teachers

Wake County school leaders plan to provide locally many of the due-process rights that state legislators removed from teachers as part of efforts to eliminate tenure.

Changes made in state law in 2013 prevent any additional North Carolina public school teachers from earning career status, also called tenure. Supporters of the change said too few bad teachers were being fired, while opponents said the former law protected educators from being fired without cause.

But under a new Wake school board policy that will be voted on Tuesday, veteran teachers now ineligible for tenure would get locally many of the same rights they would have received before from the state.

These protections include the right of veteran teachers to:

“Our goal is to make sure our teachers felt they had protection and support,” said Doug Thilman, Wake’s assistant superintendent for human resources. “With the elimination of career status, our policy was written to provide as much support as we could.”

Wake’s approach has received praise from the N.C. Association of Educators, the largest group representing educators in the state. The group is also fighting the state’s elimination of career status.

“This shows a commitment by the Wake County school board to its teachers,” said Mark Jewell, vice president of NCAE.

But Terry Stoops, director of education research studies for the John Locke Foundation, said the best thing to do is to wait while the tenure issue is resolved in court. The Raleigh think tank had supported eliminating career status.

“With the case on appeal and possible changes in state testing, it seems there are too many factors in play so waiting and seeing is the best policy,” he said.

Since 1971, North Carolina teachers who made it beyond the first four years of a probationary period were granted tenure.

But as part of the 2013 budget, the General Assembly voted to eliminate career status for all teachers by 2018.

State Republican legislators who passed the change cited figures that showed only 17 tenured teachers had been fired each year. But critics of the change said career status didn’t mean a guaranteed job and that many ineffective teachers were weeded out while they were on probationary status.

Superior Court Judge Robert Hobgood ruled last May against the retroactive elimination of tenure. He also struck down the legislative requirement that school districts offer four-year contracts with bonuses to 25 percent of their teachers to entice them to give up tenure.

But Hobgood left in place the provisions saying that tenure could no longer be provided to teachers who hadn’t yet attained it. The ruling means all teachers without career status are working on one-year contracts until at least 2018, when they could be offered up to four-year contracts.

On Jan. 22, a three-judge panel of the N.C. Court of Appeals heard arguments. The panel appeared to be skeptical of the legislature’s reasons for the changes, but it could takes weeks or months for a decision to be issued.

School districts around the state are revising their policies to reflect the changes in state law. But the Democratic-led Wake school board is going beyond what’s required.

Under Wake’s proposed policy change, a teacher with at least five years’ experience who doesn’t have career status and who has had good evaluations the prior three years can only be fired for one or more of 15 identified reasons. Those reasons are the same as those previously listed in state law for tenured teachers, including:

School board member Jim Martin said incorporating the wording from the prior state law will protect effective teachers. The school board is scheduled to give preliminary approval Tuesday with final approval potentially on Feb. 17.

“Teachers need to be free of fear of political intervention or ideological intervention,” Martin said. “As everyone knows now, we don’t pay teachers a salary commensurate to their training, so job security when you’re doing your job well is absolutely something to offer.”

Jewell, of NCAE, called Wake’s policy innovative and progressive. He hopes it will cause other school boards to want to emulate North Carolina’s largest district.

“This is a very smart policy move for Wake County schools in order to keep good quality, highly effective teachers,” he said. “It’s going to make a teacher not want to leave Wake County to work elsewhere.”

Stoops, of the John Locke Foundation, said it’s best for Wake to only make the changes that have to be made to conform to the court’s opinion.

“I don’t really see other districts moving forward with these sorts of measures, which makes me think the Wake County school board is being a little too aggressive on this issue,” Stoops said. “Other school districts, including large urban districts, are waiting patiently to see what happens with the appeal.”