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Court: ‘Objective’ Reasons Needed To Deny K-12 Tenure

I’ve got an article for Carolina Journal out on a public school tenure case that made it all the way up to the state’s second-highest court. The article in full:

RALEIGH — North Carolina K-12 public school teachers currently enjoy enhanced job security after completing four years on the job. A new ruling by the state’s second-highest court highlights the need for school boards to follow proper procedures in deciding whether to grant tenure, or “career status,” to teachers.

Vanessa Joyner began working as a teacher in the Perquimans County schools in August 2008. She spent her first two years teaching first grade and then moved to a position teaching exceptional children for the next two years.

In May 2012, she and 12 other teachers went before the Perquimans County Board of Education seeking career status. Teachers gaining tenure enjoy enhanced job protections for the remainder of their teaching careers. If a school seeks to fire a tenured teacher, the teacher can request a formal hearing, and if the superintendent decides to uphold the firing, the teacher can ask the entire school board to reconsider the dismissal.

Teachers who are not awarded tenure after four years on the job are dismissed immediately.

The school system’s superintendent, along with the current and former principals of the school where Joyner taught, recommended that she be awarded tenure. The school board, however, voted against granting Joyner career status.

At a closed-door session, school board member Ralph Hollowell stated that “he had heard from teachers, teacher assistants, parents, and grandparents questionable information about [Joyner],” and that “from the accounts he had heard, he was not sure if [exceptional] students … were getting what they needed.”

Hollowell said that he observed Joyner during three days in which he “substituted” at her school and “questioned the quality of services the students were receiving in such a short length of time.” Hollowell did not elaborate on why he felt Joyner’s performance was unsatisfactory, nor did he share his observations with anyone at the school at the time.

When Joyner learned that she had been rejected for tenure, she requested a hearing before the school board. At the hearing, she stressed the positive reviews and recommendations she had received. She also questioned Hollowell’s motives in opposing her tenure status; Hollowell’s wife was a teacher at Joyner’s school, and Joyner had reported Hollowell’s wife for administering a test improperly just before Hollowell “substituted” at the school. Hollowell was not present at the hearing.

The courts weigh in

After the school board again voted to deny Joyner tenure, she sought judicial review of the decision. In a Nov. 16, 2012 ruling, Superior Court Judge William Pittman ordered Joyner to be granted tenure. Pittman found that Hollowell’s status as a member of the school board constituted a conflict of interest. The judge also said that Hollowell was biased against Joyner, and that his bias influenced the school board’s decision not to award Joyner tenure.

The school system challenged Pittman’s ruling before the Court of Appeals, which upheld the trial court’s order.

“Upon careful examination of the whole record, we are unable to discern a rational basis in the evidence for the board’s decision,” wrote Judge Chris Dillon for the appeals court.

Dillon noted that the record before the school board of Joyner’s ability as a teacher was very favorable. The only real negative item was Hollowell’s concerns, which were vague and not substantiated.

The Perquimans school district also contended that the school board had offered an adequate explanation for Joyner’s dismissal in its written decision. The written decision simply states: “The board has concerns about [Joyner’s] performance,” and “The board can and should find a teacher to do a better job than [Joyner].”

The appeals court flatly rejected this argument.

“To accept the board’s ‘findings’ as explaining a valid basis for its decision — or, put another way, as indicative of the standard for attaining tenure status, without being accompanied by an articulation of a specific concern supported by substantial evidence in the record — would be to grant the board unfettered discretion to act arbitrarily toward a particular candidate, as there will always be some candidate, somewhere, who could ‘do a better job,’” wrote Dillon.

“This case is a window into the absurdities of teacher tenure decisions,” said Terry Stoops, director of research and education studies at the John Locke Foundation. “Public school advocates depict the teacher tenure process as a meritocracy designed to award unparalleled job security to the best and brightest teachers in the district. But after reading the details of this case, it’s no wonder that Republicans passed legislation that will replace tenure with a performance-based contract system.”

Stoops added, “One wonders how many other school boards made tenure decisions based on the personal whims of members or the superintendents that they employ, rather than on the teacher’s competence in the classroom.”

The case is Joyner v. Perquimans County Board of Education, (13-446).

One Response to “Court: ‘Objective’ Reasons Needed To Deny K-12 Tenure”

  • Dec

    I’m sure that the school board released the two principals and superintendent after 4 years of good evaluations and subsequent career status recommendation for such a poor teacher.

    Unlikely for sure. The system is objective based on the evaluations of the teacher by his/her immediate superior. Principals have four years to objectively observe and guide a new teacher. Each year the principal can simply not renew the contract. The school board at that time can also choose not to renew the contract. If the teacher stinks, surely people know about it after four years. The state has a very complex observation and teacher evaluation rubric. It is supposed to be objective. If the teacher doesn’t cut it, then no career status. If principals are routinely allowing poor teachers to earn career status, then I submit the problem rests with the principals, not the tenure system as Mr. Stoops and the GA say. For example, if you run a McDonalds franchise and you allow poor employees to remain on the job, who is at fault? YOU are!

    Under the new contract system, a teacher’s contract can simply not be renewed. No reason is necessary and no hearing is allowed. That means if I’m a social studies teacher and the school finds a new football coach that teaches social studies…well, my contract can simply not be renewed to make room for the coach. I have NO recourse under the new law. So much for objectivity. My career status paper says it is a contract. Can the state arbitrarily break its contract with me?

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