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Virginia Journal of Education

The Fine Print

Here's some of what you need to know about your teaching contract.

by Dena Rosenkrantz

Fans of old movies may remember a scene in a Marx Brothers movie with Groucho and Chico going over a contract.   Groucho starts out reading “the party of the first part, hereinafter known as the party of the first part.” But Chico says he doesn’t like that part. Then Groucho reads “the party of the second part, hereinafter known as the party of the second part.” And Chico again says he doesn’t like that part. This comic scene offers a serious legal message:  knowing the parties to a teacher’s contract helps you understand a lot about teaching employment. 

The Party of the First Part
In Virginia “the party of the first part” to a teaching contract is the local school board. Public school teachers are employed by a local school board, in whom the Constitution of Virginia vests supervision of schools.
The commonwealth of Virginia sets some requirements and provides some funds for public schools, but does not employ most Virginia teachers. Most of Virginia’s public school teachers are not state employees, with the exception of teachers at the Virginia School for the Deaf at Staunton and for the Department of Corrections.
Full-time teachers participate in the statewide Virginia Retirement System but other aspects of their pay and benefits are controlled by the local school board. North Carolina teachers are state employees, all covered by group health insurance provided by the state. But in Virginia a local school board provides group health insurance for the teachers and other school employees. 

However, Virginia school boards do not have fiscal autonomy or independence; the county board of supervisors or city/town council collects taxes and appropriates funds to the school board for the operation of schools.

The Party of the Second Part
The party of the second part to a Virginia teaching contract is “the teacher.” Regulations by the Virginia Board of Education define a teacher “as a person (i) who is regularly employed full-time as a teacher, visiting teacher/school social worker, guidance counselor, or librarian, and (ii) who holds a valid teaching license.”

Notice both parts of the definition. Teaching is defined as full-time employment. Only full-time teachers are protected by state continuing contract law, and only full-time teachers participate in the Virginia Retirement System. Local school boards may employ a licensed instructor on a part-time basis, but such a person is not a “teacher” as defined by state regulation. 

One must have a teaching license from the Virginia Board of Education to meet the definition of a teacher. The Board issues four different licenses: Provisional (allowing three years for a person with allowable deficiencies to meet the requirements for licensure), Collegiate Professional, Postgraduate Professional, and Technical Professional (in areas of career and technical education and military science). 

To teach in a Virginia public school, you must have a teaching license. Don’t take any chances with your “license to teach.” You don’t want to walk away from your teaching job because an unpaid campus parking ticket or some other technicality keeps you from getting a certified transcript. Full-time teaching employment is hard work but you cannot enforce your teaching contract – keep your teaching job or get a due process hearing before being fired – if you fail to complete the courses you need for license renewal or to move from a provisional to a full license.
School administrators act as middlemen, sending transcripts or in-service records to the Virginia Board of Education to help a teacher get or renew a license. Keep copies of course records just in case you need to follow up. It’s your teaching license and your job depends on it. 

A license issued by the Virginia Board of Education is required for many different school jobs that may not fit the traditional notion of a “teacher,” including positions such as guidance counselor, librarian or media specialist, school social worker or visiting teacher, school psychologist, diagnostician, and school-based technology specialist.  But other school employees who consider themselves teachers, get paid the same salary as teachers, and perhaps even sign the same contract as licensed teachers are not legally teachers because their jobs do not require a teaching license. The United States District Court for the Western District of Virginia ruled that a family training specialist in the Roanoke City Schools was not a teacher protected by continuing contract. The specialist was a licensed teacher and signed a teaching contract, but no license was required for her school job and responsibilities for training parents.
Last but not least, a Virginia teaching contract is between the school board and the individual teacher. It may be very rare for the individual teacher to negotiate directly with the school board, but the contract maintains the legal fiction of a bargain between the board and the teacher. Virginia teachers are not covered by a collective bargaining agreement between the school board and the teachers’ union. Your local education association may meet with school officials to confer about salaries, benefits and policies, but the school board has final authority and sets the terms for a teacher’s employment. Your salary may be based on a scale, but you are employed on an individual contract and are bound to the individual salary figure stated there. Check your placement on the scale and credit for advanced degrees when you get notice of your salary; without a collective bargaining agreement you may be bound to an individual contract by accepting a salary offer that is not proper placement on the division salary scale or compensation for degrees.
Do Your Part 
Understanding the parties to a teaching contract makes clear some actions that you can take to protect and improve your teaching employment. 

Contact your local association leaders and UniServ Director for information about your school board employer and the county or city board that funds local schools. Attend board meetings and serve on association committees that may meet with school officials regarding salary and teaching conditions. Vote in local elections and work with your association to support teacher-friendly candidates. 

Keep track of license requirements, meet deadlines for licensure or renewal, and keep copies of records “just in case.” Your UniServ Director can help with license questions or concerns.

Here are some other questions we’ve received dealing with teacher contracts:

What does “other duties” really mean?
I’m concerned about one paragraph in my teaching contract that refers to “other duties” I may be asked to perform. Other than teaching my students, what duties may I have to do?

Teaching is a demanding profession, for both beginners and veterans. For this reason, VEA has helped win important protections on the “other duties” teachers may be required to perform.

For example, VEA assisted members who felt that their teaching jobs were in jeopardy after giving up a coaching assignment. We succeeded in getting language in the state statute that requires separate contracts for any paid supplementary athletic coaching or extracurricular sponsorship assignment. Having a separate contract allows a teacher to choose whether to be a coach or sponsor without jeopardizing her teaching job.
Another example: VEA’s work led to a state law protecting teachers from being forced to perform certain health-related services. Virginia Code now provides that licensed instructional employees shall not be disciplined or dismissed for refusing to perform non-emergency health-related services for students, or refusing to obtain training in the administration of insulin and glucagons. (Note: instructional aides and clerical employees may not refuse to dispense oral medications. Also, other health services may be included in the job description and duties of an instructional aide.)
Language requiring an employee to perform “other reasonable duties” is routine in professional contracts, but VEA succeeded in having the standard teaching contract amended to state that those tasks must be “pertinent” to the employee’s professional duties. Some common tasks teachers are asked to perform include hall, bus, cafeteria or playground duty supervising students.
Rarely, we must assist members who are asked to perform unusual and potentially dangerous assignments, such as searching schools after bomb threats, directing traffic on public streets, or driving a student home after school or practice.

Contact your UniServ Director for advice if you have questions about a direction or assignment. Also, he or she can help you communicate with school officials if you have specific health or other reasons that might be grounds for having you excused from specific duties, or provided with an alternative assignment.

Can a representative attend my meeting with the principal?
My principal is not happy with my work. I was forced to sit through a meeting so the principal and another school administrator could tell me all the things I am doing wrong. I don't think it was fair to have two against one. Don't I have the right to bring someone with me to be on my side?

In general, employees do not have a right to bring a representative to work meetings. Virginia law provides for representation at meetings during Step 2 and beyond of the teacher grievance procedure, and when a teacher meets with the superintendent or designee regarding a recommendation not to renew the teacher's contract. These are meetings initiated by the teacher under specific state laws.

School employees have statutory or constitutional rights to legal representation in meetings with social workers investigating charges the employee abused a student, or if law enforcement officials investigate a crime.

Even though you have no right to representation, you can ask that someone be allowed to come with you to take notes and help you remember what happens at the meeting. If your request is denied, the colleague should leave or wait outside the office.

If you attend without support, concentrate on taking notes. Allow the administrator to speak rather than trying to respond or argue. Treat the meeting as one in which administrators give their version of events, not a "trial" you argue to win. You can respond in writing or arrange a separate meeting to present your side. If administrators ask you to answer questions, explain that you need time to prepare and will answer later. If necessary, you can ask to be excused if you are not able to continue.

Then use your notes to draft a description of the meeting. Include specifics like how much notice you had to come to the meeting, that you asked for a representative or colleague to sit in, and if you felt the tone was loud, hostile or intimidating. Summarize any disagreements about the facts or sequence of events and prepare your version of those events. Then consult your VEA/NEA UniServ Director (UD). Your UD will help you decide whether to respond in writing, request another meeting, or perhaps file a grievance which will give you right to representation at further meetings.  
When do I need to declare my intent to return?
Every year the school division sends me a form at the beginning of second semester asking if I intend to return next school year. I like my job but would also like to look around at other teaching positions that may pay better or be closer to my home. I don't want to quit the job I have without finding another. But this form makes it sound like I have to make up my mind to stay or go before I even get the chance to look. Am I stuck?
Not yet. But keep track of the calendar because you may be forced to make the difficult decision later on. April 15 is the deadline in state law for a teacher to notify the school board that she/he is not returning for the next school year. Returning a form that says you intend to stay should not stop you from changing your mind and resigning before April 15.

If you don't have a job offer for next year by April 15, you face tough choices. After April 15 your contract for the next school year is binding. You cannot enter into a teaching contract with another school division until you have been released from the contract with your current employer. You will have to offer good reason for leaving and the school board must accept your resignation.

Regulations by the Virginia Board of Education provide that release from contract should be "liberally granted" until teacher contracts are final with salary terms set, or May 31, whichever is later. So you should be allowed to resign but will need school board approval.

From June 1 on you face more and more difficulty getting the required release from contract. In many areas of Virginia you will not be interviewed or offered a job without proof of release from contract. If the school board now employing you does not accept your resignation you cannot enter into a new teaching contract. Breaching your teaching contract by taking another job could expose you to a contract suit for damages, or revocation of your teaching license or both.

Start looking early; if you’re offered another job before April 15 you can easily resign. Consult your UniServ Director about local deadlines and get the UD's help if you submit your resignation. But keep in mind that if you wait too long you may not be offered or be able to accept a new job. You decide whether you want the security of returning to the same school division or want to jump without a safety net. 

Can my teaching placement be changed?
I am a confused new teacher. I was hired by the principal at my neighborhood school and spent a lot of time this summer planning and preparing for the class I expected to teach. But just before the start of school I was moved to a different school building and a different grade. I did not have time to redo everything, and feel vulnerable because the new principal does not know me.

Sorry to hear you got off to a rough start, but your experience and confusion are common. The building principal may interview you, tell you that you have the job, observe your class, evaluate your teaching, and tell you what to do. But the principal is your supervisor, not your employer. The local school board employs you.

You may proudly speak of your students, your room, your subject and your grade, but your sense of ownership is not legally protected. Under Virginia Code, the division superintendent has the authority to assign teachers to positions in a school, and the school board can give the superintendent authority to assign teachers to any school. Moving a teacher from one school building to another, or changing the grade or subject you teach does not legally change your job or salary.

Your new principal should evaluate you but does not have final authority to fire you. You have an annual contract for the term of one school year. The school board must find good cause to terminate the contract during the school year, whether you want to quit or you face dismissal.

Rosenkrantz is the VEA’s senior staff attorney and director of legal services.



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