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Flaws in tenure law, group says
School board association seeking changes in legislation for teacher dismissals 'cheaper, easier and faster'

By Bayne Hughes 340-2432

The Alabama Association of School Boards wants to return to the old ways of dealing with teacher tenure.

But AASB Executive Director Sandra Sims-deGraffenried and Assistant Executive Director Sally Howell know that wholesale changes to the tenure law passed in 2004 are not likely in the current political climate.

The two told The Decatur Daily's editorial board Tuesday that they will push for changes during the upcoming session of the state Legislature because the revised law didn't accomplish the goal of making teacher dismissals "cheaper, easier and faster."

Instead, Sims-deGraffenried said, the law that eliminated the Tenure Commission in favor of federal arbitration made teacher dismissals "more difficult, more expensive and extended the process."

Howell said the state's costs increased from about $18,000 to about $400,000 annually because it must pay federal mediators and cover their expenses to come to Alabama to hear cases.

"The data has shown that it's not easier and it's definitely more expensive," said Howell, an attorney.

According to Howell, the new rules make employees automatically file for arbitration because they'll get three or four months pay, despite some egregious offenses that usually would lead to automatic dismissal.

For example, she said, one school system had a principal set up a private slush fund without the board or superintendent's knowledge and use some of the money for personal use. The board had to continue paying the suspended principal while he faced criminal charges.

"The employee asked for a stay in the arbitration case because of his Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination, and he stayed on the system's payroll for two years," Howell said.

The AASB would like to bring the school boards back into the appeal process or use an arbitrator with knowledge of education and Alabama law. Sims-deGraffenried said the group also would like arbitrators to be allowed only to rule yes or no, eliminating their ability to hand down lesser penalties.

Howell said the Alabama Education Association, AASB and other groups track arbitrators' decisions. If an arbitrator rules too often for one side or the other, he isn't chosen to arbitrate subsequent cases.

As a result, "He is very careful not to be labeled for one side or another," Howell said.

She said this leads to strange decisions like the coach who put a basketball player through a drill in which his teammates punched him for 1 minute.

"The arbitrator thought his actions were horrible but, because the employee had a good track record, he suspended him 30 days without pay and told him he couldn't coach for four years," Howell said.

Sims-deGraffenried said the tenure law makes it difficult in the most clear-cut cases, so it's almost impossible to fire a teacher who is not doing her job because of burnout or an unwillingness to try new instructional initiatives.

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