NC teachers group sues over tenure law changes


The North Carolina Association of Educators and six veteran teachers filed a lawsuit that contends the law passed this summer takes away requirements that school administrators follow a defined process when firing a teacher. The law starts a five-year process moving all teachers into employment contracts that make it easier to dismiss educators.

Rodney Ellis, the president of the NCAE, says before when a teacher was facing termination there was a process to protect them, so no one could be terminated without a proper investigation. He says the new law does away with that, and that cuts by the legislature is making it harder to do their job well.  

"I had a teacher tell me one day she's actually sitting down writing hand copies out of her book because she doesn't have text books. We don't even have text books from this decade! At what point are we going to show the type of investment our students need," said Ellis.

Since August, teachers who haven't worked the four years in a school district needed to qualify for career status are being offered one-year contracts, the lawsuit said. Veteran teachers lose their tenure protections in 2018. The law also directs school districts to pick the best 25 percent of teachers in classrooms next year and offer them four-year contracts with pay raises totaling $5,000 in exchange for giving up tenure rights.

East Chapel Hill High School teacher Brian Link said he is participating in the lawsuit because the law cuts off the job security that led him to move to North Carolina instead of Florida.

"I believed this state respected and valued its teachers," Link said in a statement. "Now, three years into my career, I will have none of those basic employment rights that first made me want to come here."

A series of legislative changes this year have led teachers to sign petitions, plan walk-outs and prepare lawsuits. Public school advocates last week sued the state to try to block a law that would let taxpayer money be used by low-income students wishing to attend private or religious schools.

The state's top two lawmakers said they were not concerned with the NCAE filing "another frivolous lawsuit."

"While union leaders are focused on succeeding in the courtroom, we'll remain focused on our children succeeding in the classroom," Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, and House Speaker Thom Tillis, R-Mecklenburg, said in a written statement.

NCAE lobbies for teachers at the General Assembly, but it is not able to negotiate labor contracts like a union because state law prohibits collective bargaining by public employees.

Berger has said previously that the Obama Administration has pushed states to develop teacher evaluation systems with teeth, merit pay for teachers, and holding teachers and schools more accountable for how much students learn.

North Carolina law for more than 40 years has said veteran teachers can't be fired or demoted except for a series of listed reasons that include poor performance, immorality and insubordination. Career teachers also have the right to a hearing where they can challenge the reasons offered for their firing or demotion.

Seventeen of the state's 95,000 teachers were fired for cause last year, the same as the previous year and down from 52 in 2009-10, according to an annual report released earlier this month.

Ann McColl, the NCAE's top attorney, said a case decided by the state Court of Appeals on Tuesday points out why that's important to teachers. "Without these protections all sorts of arbitrary actions can occur without any recourse," McCroll said.

A three-judge appeals court panel ruled unanimously that the Perquimans County school board fired teacher Vanessa Joyner without clear cause. The teacher had earlier reported school board member Ralph Hollowell's wife, who taught at the same school, for mistakes in administering a writing test, judges wrote in their ruling. Though the school district's superintendent and her building's principal recommended Joyner, Hollowell said he observed Joyner at work and had never-specified concerns about how she did her job, judges said.

Hollowell's claims that Joyner performed poorly was "essentially unsupported, undocumented hearsay presented by one biased member" and "was neither competent nor substantial," a lower court judge ruled in ordering Joyner get back her job. The state appeals court agreed.

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