- Associated Press - Thursday, April 3, 2014

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - Senators say South Carolina’s process for removing an underperforming teacher can drag out at the expense of school districts and children’s education, and it needs to change.

A bill debated Thursday by a Senate panel would give principals the final say in whether to extend a teacher’s contract. While no vote was taken, the entire subcommittee agreed the decades-old law must be updated. The question is how.

“It’s an issue that definitely needs to be dealt with,” said Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, who advised teacher advocacy groups to work toward a compromise.

Tenure doesn’t exist in South Carolina’s schools. But teachers who have been in the classroom for several years - those who have earned “continuing contract” status - have certain rights before being terminated, starting with notification of a formal evaluation over the upcoming school year. Teachers who don’t pass that evaluation can then appeal to their school board. If that hearing doesn’t go their way, they can take their case to court.

The bill’s sponsor, GOP Sen. Paul Thurmond of Charleston, said the time involved means some children are being short-changed.

“We need to protect teachers from arbitrary and capricious dismissal, but at the same time we need to protect students who aren’t learning anything in the classroom,” said Superintendent Mick Zais, who worked with Thurmond on the bill.

He guessed that at least 95 percent of teachers “are hard-working and love their children, but for that small percentage, we need to balance the scales in the interests of children.”

Teacher advocacy groups contend cases rarely get appealed to a school board, much less a court, which can rule only on whether procedures were properly followed, not on a teacher’s ability.

In Charleston County, the state’s second-largest district, three teachers are still being paid not to work as they await a school board hearing, one year after their contract was not renewed for the current school year. They are among 11 teachers in the district who appealed to the board.

Thurmond’s bill would forgo the entire notice and evaluation process. Teachers could find out in April, when contracts are handed out, they won’t have a job when the school year ends.

Kathy Maness of the Palmetto State Teachers Association said that’s not fair.

The bill means principals don’t have to “come into my classroom and observe and if they don’t like what they’re seeing, tell me what the problem is and give me the opportunity to improve,” she said.

Sen. John Matthews, a retired elementary school principal, said the bill creates a shortcut that’s “too short.”

“But I do think there’s an issue in underperforming teachers and not being able to deal with it,” said Matthews, D-Bowman.

He wants school boards removed from the process. Particularly in small districts, board members can pressure principals and make decisions themselves based on their friendships rather than children’s best interests, he said.

Cindy Coats, chairwoman of the Charleston County School Board, agreed the process needs to end with an independent arbitrator, though for a different reason. Elected school board members are not qualified to determine whether teachers should be fired, she said.

“This is a process that takes two years to get to me - two years before I know a teacher is underperforming. Sometime after April 15, I get a letter that says I want my appeal heard. That’s my first notice,” she said. “I’ll have no other information until they appear before me. It’s the first time I receive any documentation, any proof, and before I leave the room I must decide.”

As of January, the district had spent $150,000 since the school year began on the salaries of teachers not working while awaiting their hearing, and some salaries continue. Each hearing costs about $10,000 additional. Of the six cases in which the board sided with the administration, three were further appealed to circuit court. One has already been dismissed, said the district’s lawyer, John Emerson.

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