RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - A judge ruled Friday that a new North Carolina law cutting job protections for veteran teachers who now enjoy them is unconstitutional and threw into doubt whether school districts can offer longtime educators contracts that sign away those rights for a $5,000 raise.
Superior Court Judge Robert Hobgood said veteran teachers have an established right to a layer of review beyond school administrators when they face firing. His ruling also said the law passed by Republican lawmakers last year violates constitutional rights that protect contracts and prevent governments from taking a person’s property.
Abolishing teacher tenure “was not reasonable and necessary to serve an important public purpose,” Hobgood said in his ruling.
For more than 40 years, North Carolina law has said veteran teachers cannot be fired or demoted except for reasons that include poor performance, immorality and insubordination. Teachers earning career status after at least four years in a school district also have the right to a hearing where they can challenge their firing or demotion.
Last summer, Republican lawmakers voted to phase out those protections, arguing it will promote sharper classroom performance. Teachers who haven’t worked the four years needed to qualify for career status are being offered one-year contracts. Veteran teachers were due to lose their tenure protections in 2018.
The judge’s ruling did not include teachers that were hired with the expectation of having tenure rights after four years but who had not yet reached that milestone. That means new teachers can be hired without a claim to tenure rights that veteran teachers who have earned the job protection can continue to enjoy.
State Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, promised that the ruling will be appealed. Attorney General Roy Cooper has not decided whether to pursue an appeal, spokeswoman Jennifer Canada said. Lawmakers last year gave legislative leaders the right to defend laws they pass if Cooper refuses.
“Today a single Wake County judge suppressed the will of voters statewide who elected representatives to improve public education and reward our best teachers with raises. This is a classic case of judicial activism,” Berger said in a statement.
Hobgood refused a request by a state attorney defending the law to delay the effect of his decision.
Lawyers representing the North Carolina Association of Educators and a half dozen teachers argued to Hobgood earlier this week that eliminating career status wasn’t necessary to remove problem teachers. The state attorney defending the law countered that lawmakers can end tenure protections if they think it will improve public schools.
The ruling is likely to delay action by local school boards on another part of the law requiring them to offer the best 25 percent of its teachers four-year contracts. The contracts mean giving up tenure protections in return for $5,000 in raises over the four years. The law states that school boards have to offer the contracts by the end of next month.
A Superior Court judge ruled last week in a separate case that the Guilford County and Durham school boards do not have to issue new teacher contracts to a selected elite 25 percent of educators.
Hobgood bolstered the case against the contracts by ruling legislators gave school administrators “no discernable, workable standards” to decide which teachers to place in the top 25 percent.
Veteran teachers can choose whether or not to accept a contract if one is offered, but Friday’s decision means doing so entails signing away job rights they can keep throughout their career, NCAE attorney Ann McColl said.
Emery Dalesio can be reached at https://twitter.com/emerydalesio.
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