NC teachers sue for tenure protections

jstancill@newsobserver.comDecember 23, 2013 

— The N.C. Association of Educators and six teachers, including one from Johnston County, filed suit on Tuesday, challenging the end of tenure for public school teachers in North Carolina.

The legislature this year passed a budget that eliminates tenure in 2018. In the meantime, school districts will offer the top 25 percent of teachers four-year contracts and $500 annually to relinquish their status.

The state teachers’ group seeks to keep tenure for those teachers who have already earned it and to restore the possibility for those in the pipeline.

Since 1971, teachers who made it beyond a four-year probationary period earned “career status,” more commonly referred to as tenure. Though the designation did not equate to a lifetime job guarantee, it did come with certain job protections, including the right to a hearing in the event of dismissal.

One of the plaintiffs, Rich Nixon, teaches history at Corinth Holders High School. A 34-year teacher, he is president of the Johnston County Association of Educators.

Tenure is “part of the contract that teachers have had with the state since 1971, and now the legislator has arbitrarily just stripped all these teachers from that part of the contract,” Nixon said. “It’s about honoring contracts, it’s about honoring teaching, and it’s about living up to your word.”

Teaching is a profession with high standards but few incentives, Nixon said, pointing specifically to low pay. Tenure offered some job security, and now that is gone too, he said.

“The thing about career status is that it allows teachers to speak out,” Nixon said. “To speak their minds about the profession, to speak out on behalf of kids, to say when they disagree with policies that might be harmful for education.”

Without tenure, teachers might be reluctant to sue when they have a grievance, Nixon said. “What I did today, without career status, would be a very dangerous move as far as the profession goes, because without career status, hiring and firing can become very political,” he said.

Another plaintiff, Stephanie Wallace, 35, teaches English at East Forsyth High School in Kernersville. The legislature’s message to teachers is that they are expendable, she said.

Teaching is all she ever wanted to do since she was an N.C. Teaching Fellow at UNC Greensboro. After 14 years in her high school classroom, Wallace said, she is paid the equivalent of a seven-year teacher’s salary in some places.

To help pay medical bills for her son, who has a rare liver disease, Wallace teaches online for the state’s virtual public school and for DeVry University. She also works as a private tutor and spends $300-$500 each summer for classroom supplies and granola bars for her low-income students who sometimes get hungry in class.

“I did everything you told me I had to do,” Wallace said of the state’s requirements. “I have never had an unsatisfactory review. I have a master’s degree, I have AP certification, I am a Nationally Board Certified teacher. And you’re going to tell me all of a sudden that I don’t deserve career status any longer? I’ve done everything you’ve asked me to do. How is that fair? How is that legal?”

The lawsuit will claim that the state has broken a contract with teachers who took the job with the understanding that they could earn tenure, said Ann McColl, general counsel for the N.C. Association of Educators.

The idea under the old law was that poorly performing teachers would be weeded out during the four-year probationary period. The ones who made it past that point earned career status. But they could still be fired for 15 reasons outlined in the law, including inadequate performance, immorality, neglect of duty and a reduction in a district’s teaching force.

Senate Leader Phil Berger, an Eden Republican who led the effort to phase out tenure, has said tenure is an impediment to removing bad teachers from the classroom. He cited data from the state that showed only 17 teachers were dismissed in North Carolina in 2011-12.

The N.C. School Boards Association supported eliminating tenure for future teachers, because of the cost and time involved in dismissing teachers. But the group wanted current teachers grandfathered into the law.

The new law would place all teachers on short-term contracts.

So, McColl said, teachers who have had career status for decades could be let go after a contract for no reason whatsoever and with no opportunity to challenge it.

“Because there’s no right to a hearing, there’s no way to know how they made a decision,” she said of administrators and school boards. “There’s no requirements for them making findings, so they decide to non-renew you, there’s no record. There’s nothing to look at. You have no right to be there when they make the decision; you have no right to provide information to support a renewal. You’re just done.”

Brian Link, 33, another plaintiff, started a second career as a teacher after practicing law in New York. He teaches world history, civics and economics at East Chapel Hill High, where he directs the school’s Social Justice Academy and has won several teaching awards.

When looking for a teaching job, Link chose North Carolina over Florida because of the state’s commitment to teachers, he said. This year would be the year he’s eligible for tenure.

The promise of job security helped him make the tradeoff for a lower-paying job in the public sector, he said, but the rewrite of the law changes the equation.

“This is just another swipe at teachers, and it’s going to make it very hard to keep highly qualified teachers in the classroom,” he said.

At East Forsyth, Wallace instructs students in the N.C. Teacher Cadet program who aspire to be teachers someday.

That’s one reason she joined the lawsuit, she said.

“I feel like I would be a hypocrite to continue to encourage people to come into this profession if I’m not willing to fight for it,” Wallace said. “Career status is huge. It’s a fight worth fighting.”

Staff writer Paula Seligson contributed to this report.

Stancill: 919-829-4559

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