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Virginia Journal of Education


Taking a Stand

VEA Preserves Continuing Contract Rights for Teachers

by Dena Rosenkrantz

There was mischief in the air again in Richmond during January and March, as some legislators attempted to tinker with teacher contracts, much like in last year’s General Assembly session. And, while the 2013 General Assembly, along with Governor McDonnell, did make some changes to laws concerning the employment status of some public school educators, VEA stood up to preserve continuing contract rights for teachers and a fair due process procedure in dismissal cases.

Here’s what you need to know about developments that may affect you, from VEA Legal Services Director Dena Rosenkrantz:

Do Virginia teachers get tenure?  No, and they never did. State law establishes a "continuing contract" for experienced public school teachers, offering some protection from arbitrary termination based on something like a personality conflict with an administrator or to make way for a lower-paid teacher. It also protects teachers from being dismissed without notice or the opportunity to contest the dismissal.

However, continuing contract is not, and never has been, a guarantee of a lifelong job. Teaching positions can be eliminated and continuing contracts terminated if student enrollment declines, subjects or classes are eliminated, or school funding is cut. Teachers can also be terminated for good cause.

Do all school employees get continuing contracts? No. Only full-time, licensed, instructional employees are eligible. This includes, for example, teachers, guidance counselors, visiting teachers/school social workers, and librarian/media specialists. Principals, assistant principals and academic supervisors are also eligible for continuing contract; part-time teachers are not, nor are other school employees, such as bus drivers, secretaries, custodians, teaching assistants/aides, occupational or physical therapists, nurses, bookkeepers, human resource staff members, or security officers.

How long does it take to get continuing contract?  This answer changes this July 1. A teacher must serve a probationary period of at least three consecutive years in the same school division before being eligible for continuing contract, and can receive a continuing contract for the fourth consecutive year, also in the same school division. That’s the way it’s been. Now, the probationary period can be extended for a fourth or fifth year for individual teachers, at the discretion of the local school board. Because probation can be extended beyond the three-year minimum, a teacher who moves from one school division to another before achieving continuing contract must start over and complete at least three years, and up to five years of consecutive service to reach continuing contract. 

Can teachers take their continuing contracts from one Virginia school division to another? This is another answer changing July 1. A continuing-contract teacher who moves to another Virginia community can be required to complete one or two years of probationary service.

Continuing contract as a principal, assistant principal or supervisor also does not move. An administrator must serve three consecutive years in the new position and then return for a fourth year to regain continuing contract.

Does experience teaching out-of-state count toward continuing contract? No. Virginia does not recognize any out-of-state teaching service toward a continuing contract here. 

Can a teacher lose continuing contract?  If you leave full-time employment as a Virginia public school teacher for more than two years, your continuing contract ends. Then you’ll have to go back to square one: at least three consecutive years of teaching service with possible extension for a fourth and fifth year before returning to continuing contract. Taking a school position that’s not full-time or doesn’t require a Board of Education license can also end continuing contract rights.

How is a teacher fired? The 2013 General Assembly tinkered with these procedures, too.  A continuing contract teacher or annual contract teacher being dismissed during the school/contract year still has rights to notice, reasons and a hearing. You must be given written notice from the superintendent of recommendation to dismiss. Once you receive that, you must request a hearing in five business days instead of the previous 15 days. The school board can hear the dismissal or have an impartial hearing officer do so and provide a recommendation.

A single hearing officer appointed by the school board replaces the three-member panel that consisted of a neutral chairperson and one representative each for the teacher and the superintendent. The hearing officer must come from outside the school division, not have been involved with the recommendation to dismiss as a witness or representative, have some knowledge of school law, and be prepared to conduct an administrative hearing. The hearing officer’s recommendation is now required in 10 rather than 30 days after the hearing.  

What are grounds for dismissing a teacher?
Virginia law says that teachers may be dismissed for “incompetency, immorality, noncompliance with school laws and regulations, disability as shown by competent medical evidence, conviction of a felony or crime of moral turpitude, or other good and just cause.”

The 2013 General Assembly changed the definition of incompetency to include one or more unsatisfactory performance evaluations in addition to consistent failure to meet endorsement requirements. Dismissal is not automatic and the superintendent still bears the burden of convincing the school board to dismiss a teacher for incompetency or other cause. 

If the same procedures apply to firing probationary teachers on annual contract and continuing contract teachers for cause, what difference does continuing contact make? One huge difference is that annual contract teacher can simply be denied a new contract. Probationary employment can end without a dismissal. All that's required by state law is timely notice and the opportunity for the teacher to meet with the superintendent or designee to discuss the reasons for nonrenewal. School administrators don’t have to prove good cause for their decision not to renew the contract of a probationary teacher.

 

 


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