Possible changes ahead in what happens when a teacher leaves mid-year - AZEdNews
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Possible changes ahead in what happens when a teacher leaves mid-year

A Black Mountain Elementary School Teacher Meets With Her Students In Cave Creek Unified School District. Photo By Lisa Irish/AZEdNews

Ninth in a series on teachers: Possible changes may be coming in what happens when a teacher leaves their position during the school year after a proposal to eliminate required discipline for educator contract breaks was presented during an Arizona State Board of Education retreat Aug. 10th at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff.

Statute defines an educator contract break during the school year – when a teacher leaves or resigns before getting the governing board’s approval – as unprofessional conduct, which previously led to an automatic six-month suspension, but now it’s a letter of censure in the teacher’s state file, noting that if there’s another in five years it’s an automatic two-year suspension.

“In light of the educator discipline process, the State Board asked for a proposal to remove the board’s jurisdiction on contract breaks to re-prioritize the efforts of the investigative unit and the board toward more serious offenses that endanger student health and safety,” said Alicia Williams, executive director of the Arizona State Board of Education in an interview with AZEdNews.

But some school leaders and education advocates are against the proposal.

“If somebody breaks the contract and walks out, we now have a huge hole for students. It affects their classroom, it affects their learning,” said Dr. Debbi Burdick, superintendent of Cave Creek Unified School District.

The current guideline on educator contract discipline “gives us a little teeth when somebody comes and says, ‘I’ve decided to leave and go to another district where I could be paid more,’” said Dr. Burdick.

Video by Angelica Miranda/AZEdNews: Proposal to end educator contract break discipline

Because there is a shortage of teachers, many school districts have fines called liquidated damages included in contracts that they may be required to pay if a teacher leaves before the end of the school year, said Dr. Greg Wyman, superintendent of J.O. Combs Unified School District.

“I do think that those districts that do have liquidated damages are finding out that the amount of money that a person has to pay is not enough of a deterrent for them not to break a contract,” Dr. Wyman said.

Investigative priorities and legislative change

The Arizona State Board of Education’s investigative unit has opened a growing number of cases, and although the board has increased capacity to adjudicate those cases, a backlog is growing, according to the retreat agenda.

About 39 percent of complaints that the Arizona State Board of Education has investigated are sexual in nature, 24 percent involve a substance, 14 percent involved assault, 12 percent involved a breach of contract such as when a teacher leaves and 10 percent involved fraud, according to a report the board has compiled and updated since 2017.

“The priority of the certification department should be those egregious accusations against teachers,” Dr. Wyman said. “But about half of school districts don’t have liquidated damages, so therefore they have no recourse to stop somebody from breaking a contract. With the threat of sending the name to the state board, and the possibility that the state board may take action against that person, that at least gives that individual second thoughts before they automatically break a contract.”

AZEdNews Teacher Series:
Part 1: Small changes can create a safer, more inclusive, trauma sensitive school
Part 2: Film: Challenges of raising a family on a teacher’s salary continue
Part 3: Teacher training: Ways to help students
Part 4: How yoga helps students relax, focus, deal with stress
Part 5: School’s not out for teachers leading student learning activities
Part 6: What classroom supplies teachers buy and what they’d like for students
Part 7: Schools welcome back staff with rallies, learning opportunities
Part 8: New state funding helps Arizona Teachers Academy ease teacher shortage
Part 9: Possible changes ahead in what happens when a teacher leaves mid-year
Part 10: School leaders say better pay would attract more teachers
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AZEdNews ongoing teacher series

Currently, educator contract breaks represent 15 percent of the Arizona State Board of Education’s investigative unit caseload, are not the highest priority, and use valuable investigator and board staff time, according to the retreat agenda.

“I know it’s been difficult for the professional standards team to look at all of those that have been turned in to them, but that is something that we use to keep staff through the term of their contract,” Dr. Burdick said.

To fully remove the board’s jurisdiction over educator contract break discipline when a teacher leaves their position mid-year, the board would need a legislative change, Williams said. 

“However, the board could adjust the discipline matrix for contract breaks if they chose to as well,” Williams said. “The board welcomes any suggestions from education stakeholders on this matter.” 

What other education advocates say

At a meeting on Aug. 19th, three groups of Arizona school administrators — superintendents, principals and other school district officials who are not superintendents — discussed the possibility of the Arizona State Board of Education removing itself from discipline for educator contract breaks when a teacher leaves during the school year, said Dr. Mark Joraanstad, executive director of Arizona School Administrators.

“The groups separately came to unanimous consensus in opposition,” Dr. Joraanstad said. “They all felt the possibility of disciplinary action by the State Board of Education was a significant factor in deterrence of contract breaks by teachers.”

The groups also said they feared that removing contract break discipline for educators would hurt teacher retention and impact teacher recruitment, Dr. Joraanstad said.

“At the end of the day, when they break that contract for whatever the reason, the losers in the deal will be the kids and the school district that loses that teacher just because there’s such a tremendous shortage right now,” Dr. Wyman said.

“It’s not like districts can go and find another teacher automatically or find as high-quality of teacher depending on what the qualifications are of the person who’s leaving, because you’ll be into the school year already and looking at people that may not have been successful in securing employment during the summer,” Dr. Wyman said.

Dr. Joraanstad said, “Replacement of last-minute vacancies would be extremely challenging, leading to more use of emergency certificates and use of individuals with poor qualifications.”

How it impacts rural schools and hard-to-fill positions

The board’s proposal to eliminate educator contract discipline would greatly impact rural schools and schools seeking to hire hard-to-find educators in math, science and special education, Dr. Wyman said.

“If you’re in an area where nobody’s coming in with the certificate you’re looking for, then it becomes extremely difficult because then you don’t have a pool of candidates to go to,” Dr. Wyman said.

Also, housing availability may be a factor that impacts teacher recruitment, Dr. Wyman said.

“There might be limited housing available like in small, rural communities. It’s not like you have an apartment complex right around the corner,” Dr. Wyman said.

Possible changes ahead in what happens when a teacher leaves mid-year Black-Mountain-Elementary-School-teacher-with-students
A Black Mountain Elementary School teacher meets with her students in Cave Creek Unified School District. Photo by Lisa Irish/AZEdNews

Teacher contracts sent out earlier than previously

In recent years, some school districts have sent out contracts to educators earlier than was done in the past – for example in February instead of in April.

“It is indeed because of the teacher shortage that districts are seeking to guarantee the return of their instructors earlier and earlier every year,” Dr. Joraanstad said. “Thus, they also know whom they have to replace, by mid-February, in time to travel out-of-state, if necessary, or get the first cut at graduating college students.”

When teacher contracts come out in the spring, “if they want to at that time look for something else, they have a window to do that and they still serve out their contract,” Dr. Burdick said.

Some school districts include language in their educator contracts that includes accepted reasons why the contract may be broken.

“We do in our district allow three caveats to break a contract,” Dr. Burdick said. “One of those is if a spouse moves, of course we’re going to allow the other spouse to go with them. Another is family illness, sometimes somebody has to go home to take care of a loved one, and sometimes that’s out of state. And finally, they might get a promotion.”

Possible solutions

Arizona School Administrators, Arizona School Boards Association and other groups will be holding discussions with Arizona Education Association to explore potential solutions outside the legislative process, Dr. Joraanstad said. 

“Perhaps we could look at a window, such as once existed, for contracts to be offered.  Any such agreement will be difficult given the competition for quality staff in the current environment,” Dr. Joraanstad said.

Some districts include in their educator contracts pro-rated liquidated damages depending on when the contract is broken with less of a penalty if the contract is broken in early spring and more if the contract is broken when school is out for the summer, Dr. Wyman said.   

“The long-term solution lies in better funding for education in general and staff salaries in particular, as well as a decrease in finger-pointing and blame-storming of educators for the various ills of our society,” Dr. Joraanstad said.

It’s critical to look at Arizona’s funding models, Dr. Wyman said.

“When you have over $1 billion in the rainy day fund, and you’re spending $100 million on test-results-based funding, that’s money that could be distributed to a lot of different places including the Arizona Department of Education and the State Board of Education, who could hire a sufficient number of individuals to go ahead and help with the conducting of the investigations,” Dr. Wyman said.

While the number of teachers who are disciplined is small, it’s a critical issue, Dr. Wyman said.

“I think we have to continue to look at what it takes to operate the education system in Arizona and fund it appropriately, not just at the school level, but also at the departmental level,” Dr. Wyman said.