Durham board joins lawsuit against tenure law

Mar. 05, 2014 @ 08:21 PM

The Durham Public Schools Board of Education on Wednesday voted unanimously to join a lawsuit opposing a new state law that, in four years, will end tenure or “career status” for North Carolina teachers.

In a statement read by board member Natalie Beyer, the board directed Chairwoman Heidi Carter and the school district’s attorney to take “any and all action necessary” to join a lawsuit the Guilford County school board plans to file seeking a declaratory judgment and injunctive relief. They’re opposed to a law that requires school districts to identify 25 percent of their teachers for four-year contracts and to offer bonuses to those who voluntarily give up “career status” before 2018.

“In November, when we found this was considered to be law, we thought it ludicrous at that time that a teacher would be asked to give up career status for $500 a year, which equates to $50 a month, which equates to $2.50 a day,” said board member Minnie Forte-Brown.

It was unclear Wednesday exactly when Guilford County might file its lawsuit, but Carter said she believes it will be soon.

Carter also had strong words for the state’s leadership after the board’s closed-door meeting to discuss the lawsuit.

“If the governor and the North Carolina General Assembly won’t stand up for our children’s teachers, then we’re going to stand up for our children’s teachers,” Carter said. “This 25 percent mandate, it’s not about rewarding excellence in teaching, it’s about coercing teachers to give up a right that they justly earned, and that’s a right to salary protection and a right to due process.”

However, Carter said the school board would have no choice but to comply with the law if the challenge in court is not successful.

“We will implement the law whether we agree or not,” Carter said.

The 25 percent mandate is backed by Republicans in the General Assembly. They contend it gives school districts a more effective tool to get rid of bad teachers.

Board member Leigh Bordley said the impending lawsuit is not about protecting bad teachers.

“This is not about teachers having some sort of tenure that prevents us from firing a teacher who is incompetent or a teacher who hurts children in any way,” Bordley said.

She said school districts already have the authority to get rid of teachers who commit offenses that warrant dismissal.

“What career status provides for teachers is their right to due process, their right to a hearing if they’re fired, and I think that’s a really reasonable thing for our staff to get in exchange for the hard work they give us,” Bordley said.

She added that a successful lawsuit would only protect tenure rights for teachers who already received them.

“When they signed on to Durham Public Schools, this was part of the deal and we want to honor that deal,” Bordley said. “We want to keep that contract in place.”

Board member Omega Curtis Parker said the school district owes teachers its support.

“Teachers have enough to deal with without having to go these days wondering what’s going to happen to them,” Parker said. “This will allow them so relief in allowing them to be able to the job that they have been hired to do.” 

The Guilford County school board has called the law unconstitutional, vowed not to comply and directed the superintendent to file a lawsuit seeking relief from the legislation.

Last week, the DPS board authorized Carter to work with the attorney for the N.C. Association of Educators and to provide an affidavit supporting the association’s lawsuit to maintain the tenure rights of teachers.

The board also adopted a resolution opposing the law in December.

Nicholas Graber-Grace, a social studies teacher at Hillside High School, applauded the school board and the community for supporting teachers.

“Teachers are here every day for our students -- we care deeply for them and are committed to their future,” Graber-Grace said. “It is time that state leaders join us in that commitment by raising per student funding in North Carolina to above the national average, restoring teaching assistants in elementary grades, restoring the cap on class size, and trusting teachers to do the work we have been trained to do.”

Andrea Underwood, president of the Durham Association of Educators, said the board’s decision sends a strong message to lawmakers and Durham teachers.

“The action of the board to stand with Guilford County and challenge the constitutionality of 25 percent contracts is to be commended,” Underwood said. “It says to educators across the district that we hear and support all of you, not just 25 percent.”

Donald Hughes, a candidate in the District 2 school board race, applauded the decision to join the Guildford County school board’s lawsuit.

Hughes said in a statement that the law is “divisive” and threatens the foundation of public education in our state.”

“Instead of supporting our teachers, this new law seeks to shame teachers,” Hughes said.

Meanwhile, Jimmy Doster, also a candidate in the District 2 school board race and the only candidate to attend Wednesday’s meeting, said he didn’t think joining the lawsuit is the right course.

Doster, a registered Republican, said the board first should try to talk with legislators about their opposition. He said he plans to do that next week when he travels to Raleigh.

“Laws can always be better and we should listen to the people they affect and get their input,” Doster said.  

Hundreds of DPS teachers have signed letters pledging to refuse the contracts, as opposition to the contracts and the end of teacher tenure continues to grow.

The Wake County school board adopted a resolution Tuesday asking the General Assembly to repeal the law, but decided against filing a lawsuit or preparing an affidavit in support of the N.C. Association’s lawsuit – as the Durham school board has agreed to do -- seeking to overturn the law.

Teachers throughout DPS and across the state contend the law is divisive because it pits teachers against each other in a competition for four-year contracts and modest bonuses.
Under the law, Durham would offer contracts to 355 of its eligible employees – 292 of them teachers and the rest members of the district’s support staff.