The one-two punch of coronavirus-related health concerns and the pressures of teaching in person, remotely, or in a hybrid of the two, all while simultaneously learning how to do it, have led many educators to decide they just can’t make it to the end of the year. While leave is often a better alternative, it is not always available. A district employee who does not have a contract can resign at any time, for any reason. But nearly all teachers and other certified personnel have contracts, which makes a midyear resignation more complicated.
A contract is a legally enforceable promise by the teacher to work for the entire school year, so a teacher cannot simply resign during the school year. If the district agrees to release the teacher from the contract, the teacher is free to go. But leaving without a release can lead to a complaint to the State Board for Educator Certification (SBEC) that the teacher “abandoned” their contract.
Requesting a Contract Release
A request for a release is simply a request that someone with authority agrees, on behalf of the district, to release the teacher from their remaining contractual obligations. Some larger districts have a specific process, but in many cases, the request is just a letter or email to the superintendent or HR director. Often, the superintendent has the authority to grant a release. (Rarely, if ever, does a campus principal have this authority.)
The district is under no legal obligation to grant a release. Even if a release is not granted, the teacher can still leave—the district cannot compel the teacher to continue showing up every day. The district also does not have the ability to “hold” a teacher’s teaching certificate. The district can, however, file a complaint for “contract abandonment.” This is why the reason for the teacher’s desire to leave is important: It is critical to whether the teacher will be penalized for leaving.
Note that it is extremely unusual for teachers to be sued for breach of contract. (Although also unusual, there are some charter school teacher contracts that state a teacher will owe the school a certain amount of money if the teacher leaves early.)
The Abandonment Complaint and “Good Cause”
If a teacher leaves midyear without a release, the school board can vote that the teacher “abandoned” their contract without good cause and can submit a complaint to SBEC requesting the educator be sanctioned.
If a timely complaint is filed, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) will investigate to determine independently whether the teacher had good cause to leave. If TEA determines the teacher had good cause, the agency will simply dismiss the complaint. If, however, TEA determines there was not good cause, sanctions can still be pursued through the normal procedures that apply to SBEC disciplinary due process.
The SBEC rules define what is good cause for contract abandonment and provide several specific situations that are considered good cause:
- Serious illness or health condition of the educator or close family member of the educator.
- Relocation to a new city as a result of change in employer of the educator’s spouse or partner who resides with the educator.
- Significant change in the educator’s family needs that require the educator to relocate or devote more time than allowed by current employment.
The first and third grounds for good cause are the most significant for coronavirus-related reasons. Many teachers are considering resigning because either their own health condition puts them more at risk if they contract COVID-19 or a close family member’s health condition puts that family member at risk were the teacher to bring the virus home. The pandemic has also caused some teachers who are also parents to keep their own children home. If this were to interfere with a teacher’s ability to work, this might also be good cause. Although this pandemic is unprecedented, and we do not have a lot of examples of how SBEC will treat these circumstances, preliminary indications are that investigators are sympathetic to those with verifiable, documented risk factors and needs.
A teacher who abandons a contract without good cause will normally have their certification suspended for a year, either from the date of the abandonment or the date of the SBEC ruling, depending on the circumstances. A teacher’s efforts to help the district mitigate or minimize the disruption caused by their leaving can reduce that sanction.
The legal information provided here is accurate as of the date of publication. It is provided for general purposes only. Individual legal situations vary greatly, and readers needing individual legal advice should consult directly with an attorney. Eligible ATPE members may contact the ATPE Member Legal Services Department. February 2021.