The blockbuster hit movie, "The Hunger Games," pits unknowing and unexpected individuals against one another at a chance for survival. At the end of the death defying challenge, only one victor can emerge, leaving the others to suffer a dreadful fate. According to Education Attorney Dean Shatley, as he has visited districts across the state to offer legal advice regarding the legislation changes, teachers have given him the analogy that the legal changes resemble that plot of "The Hunger Games."
With only 25 percent of teachers in any given district being eligible to receive a contract and bonus that could total $5,000, educators are forced to compete again each other in hopes of being recognized by the board as worthy of the contract.
Shatley was asked to speak to Macon County teachers last Thursday during a special called meeting of the board of education, to answer questions regarding North Carolina’s legislation changes involving teacher tenure status. In the last session, despite statewide opposition, state lawmakers passed legislation that ultimately ends teacher tenure entirely by 2018, in exchange for 1 - 2- or 4-year contracts, and bonuses for 25 percent of performing teachers in each district. Because the tenure changes were tacked on to the end of the state budget bill, the legislation didn’t have to go through the usual vetting process and editing through committees, causing complicated vagueness in understanding, according to Shatley. In an attempt to answer questions asked by Macon County educators, the local school board hosted Shatley last Thursday.
The meeting was streamed live to teachers in Nantahala and Highlands, and drew about 30 teachers from the Franklin district. Macon County Superintendent Dr. Baldwin believes the session was informative and offered insight in understanding the changes. The forum helped to answer some questions on the minds of local educators. “I thought the meeting went well,” said Dr. Baldwin. “Our goal was to provide teachers with quality, unbiased information so that they could make an informed decision regarding the acceptance or declination of the contract provided through the 25 percent legislation. I thought Dean Shatley did an outstanding job of explaining the ramifications and benefits of either choice. “
The changes in the law means that teachers will lose their tenure or career status protections by 2018. By the end of the year, districts have to identify criteria for teachers who have worked three or more years, in order to offer 25 percent of teachers a bonus and a one-time, four-year contract.
“This legislation and other recent legislation intending to reform public education is due to a few people who feel that teachers are failing and that schools are broken,” said Dr. Baldwin. “I am not seeing this when I go into our schools. Our teachers and students are doing great things in our classrooms. Most parents agree with me. According to research, most parents give the schools that their children attend a grade of “A” or “B”, but give education as a whole a grade of “C”. While our schools are accomplishing a lot, we know that we can also improve, and we will. But, we also know that we will always be improving because our goals will be changing with the world around us. As teachers have dealt with new standards, no textbooks, and reduced instructional materials they have also been accused of trying to protect their jobs and a broken, outdated institution. That is unfair. It is true that teachers are concerned about losing salary and possibly their jobs, but just like 99.9 percent of the folks in our community, they are proud to be products of the Macon County Public School system and want our students to have the same opportunities that our education has given us.”
Shatley explained that if educators decide to accept the four-year contract, teachers stand to receive a bonus totaling $5,000 in exchange for giving up tenure rights. The state law directs school districts to pick the best 25 percent of its teachers to offer them the tenure-ending contracts beginning this year, but did not identify how districts should go about it.
Macon County administrators are in the process of developing criteria to identify the 25 percent of teachers. The criteria must consider teacher evaluation and performance for teachers who have worked in the district for three years, but comes with no other requirements. There are no guidelines for comparing instructional teachers with non-instructional teachers, or for varying grade-levels, although all of those categories are eligible for the contracts.
Shaltey explained that the Guilford County school board has been debating whether or not to refuse to offer any teachers the contracts, a method he advises against. He noted the importance of letting teachers make their own individual decision regarding the contracts.
“You never know what that person you’re talking to is going through. Five hundred dollars or $50 extra a month in the first year—maybe more in the second year—may ultimately be significant to them.”
Dr. Baldwin and the school board echoed Shatley’s statement and encouraged teachers to respect whatever decision their co-workers make. “One of the benefits of the legislation is that it has brought about a sense of unity amongst our teachers and our schools,” said Dr. Baldinw. “This process has given us a better understanding of the important and interconnected roles that all of our teachers play in educating our students. As we move forward with this contract offer there is some concern that undue pressure may be placed on teachers to make a decision one way or another. I don’t want this to happen and neither does the school board. Also, there will be teachers who decline the offer and there will be teachers who give up their career status rights and accept the contract. No one wants either choice to have a negative impact on the culture and climate of our schools. We must work together to make sure that this does not happen.”
If all teachers do decide to completely reject the contract offer, the money that would be allocated to 25 percent of eligible Macon County teachers would just returned to the state, according to Shatley.
Macon County is one of many districts in the state struggling with the legislation requirements. Jackson County is also working out the legal definitions and attempting to develop standards to follow. “We are in the middle of developing the criteria for this mandated dreadful task,” said Jackson County Superintendent Michael Murray. “I can tell you that this is a divisive duty that I have been assigned and really do not feel it is a positive opportunity for our system. I feel strongly that every educator deserves to be paid fairly and they all deserve a raise. Being asked to come up with a process to only select 25 percent works against creating professional learning communities and will not encourage our teachers to continue to work together to get stronger as a school family.”
Murray explained that Jackson County started the task by pulling all teachers in for an information meeting that involved the school board attorney and school board members. “This gave me a chance to explain what I legally have to do,’ said Murray. “This meeting occurred before Christmas and I was very pleased with the large number of teachers that attended. Our folks had some excellent questions and many shared comments that they appreciated the opportunity to have a voice in the process. I really feel that the only way to do this is to have the teachers actually develop the criteria used to help select the 25 percent that will be offered a four-year contract.”
Macon County also felt it was important to include teacher input and sent out a questionnaire seeking input in the process.
Murray met with each school board member, administrator, and leadership team to gather their input. “We are currently surveying every teacher and using that data to create the selection criteria that I will use to carry out the process,” he said. “The plan will be to share this criteria with the board at our next board meeting. I will also share the final selection criteria with everyone once the board has had the chance to see what we have completed. I think it is critical that we are very transparent with all of this so that everyone has the chance to be involved in the process. The teachers that are selected will have the opportunity to decline the offer. Please keep in mind they have to sign off that they will willingly give up any tenure rights they might have in order to be a recipient of this four-year contract and bonus money available.”