Monday, January 21, 2013

The Teacher Contract Bill

Last year, many of you will remember, we successfully thwarted Governor McDonnell’s efforts to deny Virginia’s teachers continuing contract.  That was an all-consuming battle.  We lost in the House, but prevailed in the Senate by a mere three-vote margin.

I remember vividly that after we prevailed in the Senate, Senator Norment, who had famously taken a Valentine’s Day walk to keep the continuing contract bill from passing on the first Senate vote, told me, “You better come in next session knowing what you are willing to deal, because something will pass next year.”

McDonnell came back this year with a much less radical bill (HB 2151/SB 1223) aimed at streamlining the teacher dismissal process and reducing the costs of dismissing teachers as well.  As I said earlier, we lost the battle in the House last year, and McDonnell chose as his Senate Sponsor, Majority Leader Norment, arguably one of the most powerful members of the Senate.

After the Governor’s bill was introduced, the VEA Legislative Committee reviewed the bill, the political context, and the risk associated with the options of either attempting to kill the bill or working to fix it.  We had little or no chance of killing the bill in the House, and we were not at all sure that we could kill this year’s version in the Senate.

Unsuccessfully going for a kill would have left Virginia’s teachers with an unfair dismissal procedure devoid of due process.

The VEA Legislative Committee weighed the two options and directed the Lobby Cadre to work to fix the bill.  The mission of last year’s session was to save continuing contract – this year’s became saving due process.

The central issues for us became:

blocking a new definition of teacher which would have excluded reading and math resource teachers, reading and math specialists, school level diagnostic personnel, school psychologist, and many others from holding a teaching contract. This would have deprived new hires in these positions of continuing contract,

fighting the extension of the probationary period for new teachers to five years, and

ensuring that teachers who contested their dismissal received a fair hearing before an impartial hearing officer who made a recommendation to the school board.

We initially thought it wise to battle the new definition of incompetence which included “one or more unsatisfactory performance evaluations,” but counsel and several UniServ directors informed us that school boards can currently move for dismissal based on one evaluation.

You judge for yourself how we did on the three crucial issues.  

First here is the definition of teacher in the introduced bill – "Teacher" means a person who (i) is regularly employed as a classroom teacher, guidance counselor, or library-media specialist or librarian and (ii) holds a valid teaching license.”  The final bill does not define teacher, and consequently does not deny access to the teacher contract to many licensed professional in our schools.  Had we not been successful here, those individuals would not have been able to gain continuing contract.

Second, the compromise was to go from a five year probationary period to at least three and no more than five years in the bill now before the House.

Third, here is how the hearing officer was defined in the introduced bill, “Each school board may appoint a hearing officer from among the members of the school board, the employees of the school board, or from outside the school division to conduct hearings pursuant to this section. A hearing officer shall not have been involved in the recommendation of dismissal as a supervisor of the employee, a witness, or a representative.”  And this hearing officer would not have made a recommendation.

Here is the language in the bill now before the House, “Each school board may appoint an impartial hearing officer from outside the school division to conduct hearings pursuant to this section. A hearing officer shall not have been involved in the recommendation of dismissal as a witness or a representative. A hearing officer shall possess some knowledge and expertise in public education and education law and be capable of presiding over an administrative hearing. The hearing officer shall schedule and preside over such hearings and shall create a record or recording of such proceedings. The hearing officer shall make a written recommendation to the school board, a copy of which shall be provided to the teacher.”

For your information, the hearing officer replaced the three-person panel for state workers some years back.

As you can see, we were successful in retaining due process in Virginia’s teacher dismissal policy.  

Do we think we gained the best dismissal policy we could have gained in the current political climate? Yes.

Elect a better cast of characters in the General Assembly and we’ll go to work to make it better.