Know your Contract Rights
By: Paul Tapp, ATPE Member Legal Services Managing Attorney
What happens if you are offered a job at another district after the school year has begun–can you give two-weeks’ notice and take it? What if you are reassigned to a position that you did not want; can you quit rather than accept it? The answer to these questions depends on whether or not you have an employment contract.
The Texas Education Code requires that a public school district employ certain employees, including all classroom teachers and full-time certified administrators, under a contract. That contract works two ways. First, it creates a legally enforceable promise on the part of the district to employ the contracting educator for the term of the contract unless the district proves through the hearing process that it has good cause to terminate the teacher’s contract and employment or the teacher resigns to avoid that termination. Second, it creates a legally enforceable promise on the part of the teacher to work for the district through the end of the school year unless the teacher can prove that he or she has good cause to end employment or the district agrees to release the teacher from the contract. Except for a teacher’s right to resign before the “penalty-free resignation deadline” 45 days before the first instructional day of the upcoming school year, the contract requires that either the district or the teacher prove that they have good cause to end the employment unless both parties, teacher and district, mutually agree to end the employment relationship.
The district’s agreement to let a teacher resign when it’s not required to is called a “release” because the district is releasing the teacher from his or her contractual obligations. If an educator leaves employment without a release at a time when simple resignation is not possible, the district cannot force the educator to continue working for the district. However, the district board can rule that the educator left without good cause and can submit a complaint requesting that the State Board for Educator Certification (SBEC) sanction the educator for “abandoning” the contract.
Usually, the board must authorize the complaint within 30 days of the date the educator quit working in order for SBEC to pursue sanctions. If a timely complaint is filed, Texas Education Agency (TEA) staff will independently investigate to determine whether the educator had good cause to abandon the contract. If TEA staff determines that good cause existed, they can simply dismiss the complaint. If, however, they determine that good cause did not exist, they can pursue sanctions through SBEC disciplinary due process hearing procedures.
Over the years, through these due process hearings, a body of law has developed that defines what is and is not considered good cause. Recently, SBEC codified these decisions and informal practices into the board’s official rules. While each situation is decided on its individual facts, SBEC rules now list what is good cause to abandon a contract. These rules include:
- 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; or
- a significant change in the educator’s family needs that requires the educator to relocate or to devote more time than allowed by current employment.
Educators should note that two things are not included in this list. First, a job offer, even a promotion, is not considered good cause to abandon a contract. While a district might have a local practice of granting a release for a promotion, that is a local decision. SBEC has historically refused to accept career advancement as good cause to abandon a contract and has sanctioned educators who leave without a release from the district under these circumstances. Second, a change in the educator’s job or benefits, even a significant one, is not included in the list.
ATPE lobbied SBEC to include significant changes to a position, such as an unwanted reassignment or a substantial change in benefits, such as significantly lowering an educator’s salary, in the list of good causes, but SBEC refused to do so. This is noteworthy because recent decisions by the commissioner of education have made it easier for a school district to lower an educator’s salary without clear notice that it is going to happen.
Historically, the most common sanction imposed for a post-due-process determination that a teacher abandoned his or her contract without good cause has been a one-year suspension of teaching credentials, usually starting from the date of the abandonment. Mitigating factors have reduced sanctions, while exacerbating factors, such as an educator repeatedly abandoning contracts, have increased the sanctions. The rules also now state what efforts an educator may take to mitigate the effect of leaving and reduce the sanction that SBEC decides to impose. These mitigating measures are:
- the educator gave written notice to the school district two weeks or more in advance of the first day of instruction for which the educator will not be present;
- the educator assisted the school district in finding a replacement educator to fill the position;
- the educator continued to work until the school district hired a replacement educator;
- the educator assisted in training the replacement educator;
- the educator showed good faith in communications and negotiations with school district; and
- the educator provided lesson plans for classes following his or her resignation.
Again, making these efforts does not guarantee the educator will avoid SBEC sanctions. These efforts may simply be taken into consideration when determining what the sanction will be.
As noted above, historically, a one-year suspension was the most common penalty for abandonment without good cause or mitigation. The final addition to the SBEC rules codifies this long-time practice. The rules now provide that unless the educator had good cause to abandon the contract or had mitigated the effects of departure as provided by the statutory list provided above, the minimum penalty for an educator abandoning a contract shall be:
- suspension for one year from the first day that, without district permission, the educator failed to appear for work under the contract, provided that the educator has not worked as an educator during that year, and the case is resolved within that one year through an agreed final order; or
- suspension for one year from either the effective date of an agreed final order resolving the case or an agreed future date at the beginning of the following school year, if the educator has worked as an educator after abandoning the contract; or
- suspension for one year from the date that SBEC adopts an order that becomes final following a contested case hearing at the State Office of Administrative Hearings (SOAH).
A suspension is no small thing; it means the certificate is not valid during the suspension period, and the educator must apply for reactivation and go through another criminal background check. In addition, the suspension will become a part of the teacher’s permanent record. Most, if not all, employment applications for teachers and certified administrators ask if applicants have had their certificate sanctioned for any reason. Because a teaching certificate is a state license, the suspension can also affect an educator’s life in unexpected ways: some loan and job applications ask if the individual has ever had a state license sanctioned.
Because the penalties for abandoning a contract can be so severe and long lasting, it is almost always a good idea to seriously explore what other options, short of actually walking away, might be available.
If you find yourself facing this situation, contact the ATPE Member Legal Services Department for help. Our attorneys can explain your options as you navigate this difficult process. Members can submit employment-related legal questions or request legal assistance through the Member Legal Services Intake System (MLSIS) on the ATPE website. Members can also call ATPE at (800) 777-ATPE.