‘Unconstitutional And Demoralizing’

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Unconstitutional and demoralizing.

Those are the words Superintendent Dr. Darrin Hartness used last week to describe a new state law that directs superintendents to identify 25 percent of teachers in a system who will receive a four-year contract and $500 pay raise in exchange for giving up their tenure status and related employment due process rights.

“I adamantly oppose this process as your superintendent, but it is one that is part of North Carolina law, and when I took the oath as superintendent, I have to abide by the law. We are going to look at ways, and we have looked at ways, to apply this law as it stands, but there are significant questions about the constitutionality of it,” Hartness told the board March 4.

The law says 25 percent of teachers who are at least proficient, based on principal evaluations, and who have been employed in the district for at least three consecutive years, would be offered a four-year contract and would earn an additional $500 per year for the next four years. There are many problems associated with the law, Hartness said, but one of the biggest is that it’s limited to 25 percent.

“If you look at the performance of Davie County schools, there are way more than 25 percent of our teachers who deserve a salary increase,” he said.

Also, there is no guarantee beyond the first year that there will be funds sufficient to continue the $500 pay raise for the following three years.

Once the four-year contract expires, June 30, 2018, teachers have no guarantee of any contract. They could be offered a one-, two- or four-year contract or no contract at all and there is no guarantee of salary. If they were making $50,000 a year but if their job falls under a category the legislature says is a $40,000 one, then their salary will be reduced.

The law also strips away due process, Hartness said. Teachers who don’t have tenure but are under a contract during a school year cannot be fired arbitrarily and are given the right to a hearing so a board can hear their side and make a decision whether to retain them, but under the new law, that right is taken away.

“You can choose not to renew a contract without following the dictates of due process,” said board attorney Jill Wilson.

There is also no wording in the law about how the 25 percent should be chosen, Wilson said.

“The 25 percent paragraph in the statute does not direct you to make a list of excellent teachers. In fact, it doesn’t make any qualitative comment at all. You’ll hear that vernacular from people that are trying to tell you to do it. But there’s no language whatsoever in the statute that says these teachers have to be excellent. In fact, the only criteria in the provision says they have to be at least proficient. It goes on to say that even career teachers or any teacher for that matter who is not proficient should be fired. All it’s saying is in this pot of teachers you have to make sure they’re not eligible to be fired. That’s the only criteria you’re given for how you select your 25 percent of teachers,” she said.

The legislature passed a law that does away with tenure beginning in July 2018, but a teacher who signs up for the contract this year is signing away their right to tenure, should the law be overturned.

There is the fear that the selection process could cause divisiveness and a feeling of competition among teachers, something Deb Gustafson said will hurt everyone.

“When our school system transitioned from being a seven through ninth grade junior high school model to being a sixth through eighth grade middle school model, the emphasis was put on teaming and collaboration. Why? Because research shows that when educators collaborate and share, students benefit the most, which is what we as public educators are all about. The 25 percent contract law is demoralizing and will cause divisiveness among educators. This is truly a sad time for North Carolina public education. The morale of public educators in the state and Davie County is at an all-time low. When public education suffers, unfortunately so do our children,” she told the board during the public comments portion of the meeting.

Gustafson teaches at North Davie, has been a teacher for 24 years and is president of the local educators association. She said there are three schools in the county that have surveyed their teachers, and 100 percent of them have signed a petition that they will decline to accept the 25 percent contract. Other schools are in the process of surveying teachers and organizing discussions regarding the decision to decline to sign, she told the board.

“We appreciate all Dr. Hartness has done to include teacher input. We are all law abiding citizens, and we do not wish to cause any problems, but when it comes to educating the children, we feel passionate about this very bad decision that’s been made by this law,” she said.

Anike Fuller, a teacher at William R. Davie, one of the schools that has signed the petition, said, “We have 100 percent of signatures that say no, no thank you state of North Carolina. We are not interested in this 25 percent selection process. We believe that it will be divisive and cause competition among teachers, and that’s not what we’re about.”

While no direction was given on how to choose the 25 percent, Hartness said after discussions with a committee made up of teachers and administrators, he believes the best method, one he hopes will help avoid discouragement, is to identify the potential contract recipients based on three criteria: the potential candidate must be employed as a teacher according to law, the teacher must have been employed by the school system three consecutive years as of May 1, and must have shown effectiveness as demonstrated by proficiency on their 2012-13 summative evaluations.

He said Jeff Wallace, assistant superintendent for human resources, and other human resources staff have identified 380 teachers who meet that criteria, of which 25 percent, or 95, would be chosen. Those 95 teachers would be notified and advised on the process for either accepting or rejecting the four-year contracts. Those not chosen would also be notified, and if they felt they should have been included, they will have an opportunity to have their files reviewed, Hartness said.

If fewer than 25 percent refuse the contract, a random selection process would be used to make up the difference, since the law says it has to be 25 percent.

Because of pending litigation and the possibility of a change in the law, Hartness said there is no need to act on this now, but that it will likely be before the board at the June meeting.