S.C.’s breach of contract process hampered by delays and questionable enforcement

Published: Apr. 20, 2023 at 6:06 PM EDT
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - South Carolina needs teachers and there are fears education leaders are alienating them as they leave.

Several teachers and advocates argue the implementation of state rules on broken teacher contracts is making it harder to bring back the few who want to return.

Those rules often result in teacher certifications being suspended-preventing those teachers from taking teaching jobs in public schools.

A WIS Investigation into how South Carolina and Midlands school districts manage teacher contract breaches has found the process is inconsistently used across the area and has resulted in the suspension of teachers who expressed concerns about their health, family, or desire to work in education elsewhere.

The situation is compounded by delays that can last months- WIS identified one teacher who was pulled out of a new classroom because of her resignation a year earlier.

Amid this turmoil, S.C. Department of Education records show former teachers from Richland School District 2 and Lexington School District 2 have been suspended at a higher rate than their Midlands counterparts.

WIS compiled publicly available State Board of Education records studied educational policies and spoke with players at all levels of the system.

The complicated and at times contradictory process

South Carolina law creates a system where teachers sign contracts with school districts for one-year periods.

If a teacher breaks their contract before the year is up and their district leadership declines to release the teacher, the resignation triggers a complicated process.

It involves state law, Department of Education regulations, and district policies.

Step 1: The districts

District policies on how to report a breach of contract can vary.

For example, Lexington School District 2 policy requires the superintendent to report the breach of contract to the state board of education.

Meanwhile, Richland 2′s policy makes the local board responsible for reporting to the state board after a vote.

S.C. Department of Education Deputy Superintendent of Strategic Engagement Laura Bayne said districts are not required to report a breach of contract if they choose not to. If a district chooses to, it needs to provide the necessary documents (the contract, the resignation letter, a memo stating the school board voted to pursue the certification and others).

She said Richland 2 has been an outlier in how it interprets state regulations on reporting.

“In an abundance of caution, that district tends to send the Department of Education letters that say a breach of contract has occurred but we are not making a formal complaint. We just received those as information. They’ve dotted all their i’s and crossed all their t’s and no educator certification case is opened,” Bayne said.

In the March 28 Richland 2 school board meeting, Board Member Tamika Washington publicly stated the board had been informed by district administration that the administration is required by Department of Education policy to report breaches of contract, regardless of if the board voted to take no action.

Bayne said breaches of contract are not required to be reported. Additionally, the Department of Education regulation Washington cited does not list breaches of contract as mandated reporting.

On April 6, Richland 2′s spokesperson sent a statement from Interim Superintendent Nancy Gregory reflecting a change in the district’s stance:

After further analysis, the district will report to the State Department of Education only the names of any educators who the board votes to report for breach consideration. While no district wishes to pursue any action against a teacher certification, it is critical for the district to be able to count on our employees who committed for the school year.

President of the South Carolina Education Association President Sherry East said communication on the state board and the local districts could be improved.

“What is the policy? What is the expectation? Can a local school board release a teacher without breaching the contract and suspending the license, there needs to be some clear language around that,” she said.

Step 2: The State Board of Education

State law holds the local school board responsible for reporting the teacher to the Board of Education (if it chooses).

Once the district reports the teacher to the state board of education, the teacher can request a hearing, reach a consent agreement with the district/board, or fail to respond (considered a default).

Department records show the time between the resignation and culmination of the case takes months.

This can include a gathering of documents, interviews, and communication with the teacher/district.

In the event a hearing is requested, the state board of Education relies on a hearing officer to gather the facts of each case and present recommendations to the State Board of Education prior to any decisions being made.

These officers are lawyers contracted by the Department of Education.

The board has the power to follow the recommendation or decide on its own.

If there’s “conclusive evidence,” the law then requires the state board to suspend or revoke the teacher’s certificate for up to a year.

“With most of the breach of contract cases, it’s easy to prove that a breach of contract occurred. What the board then considers are what the mitigating circumstances were, ultimately what potential damages did the district suffer and the students that they’re serving and how active was the departing educator in conversations with the district in trying to mitigate impacts,” Bayne said.

However, Department of Education regulations allow board members to issue a public reprimand instead.

The records in WIS possession show the board does issue public reprimands and has even dismissed a case.

Bayne the board is aware of the contradiction between the law and the regulations.

“It is something we’re looking at to see if it needs legislative change or if we are on sound, solid footing,” she said.

Scrutiny of the system

Bayne said the goal of suspending a teacher’s certification is to emphasize the teacher’s responsibility to the students.

“We certainly don’t want anyone to be in an environment that they’re not comfortable in and they don’t want to be in, but ultimately, they entered into a contract and assumed responsibility for a whole classroom of students,” she said.

State Board member and Educator Licensure Committee Chair Alan Walters said it prevents larger districts from poaching with higher salaries.

“Then you’ve got instability because you’ll have people jumping around throughout the education year, and that disrupts learning for the students if you start changing teachers,” he said.

Palmetto State Teacher Association Director of Governmental Affairs Patrick Kelly argues that when suspensions are pursued excessively or unnecessarily by districts, the prospects of the teacher returning amid a shortage is diminished.

“It’s depressing the overall statewide teacher workforce at the exact moment we have got to find ways to expand that workforce,” Kelly said.

WIS analyzed the board’s licensure orders from Jan. 2020 to Dec. 2022 by district, date, potential breach of contract, and the reason given for the resignation - among other factors.

WIS further analyzed Midlands districts and Greenville/Charleston Counties for comparison.

The orders include brief explanations of why the teacher resigned. Teachers did not always provide rationales for why they left.

WIS provided the data to Bayne, Kelly, and East.

Out of the 162 breaches of contract cases involving the studied districts from 2020 through 2022, 10 broke contracts to become students or to take a different teaching position. One case involved a teacher being suspended for going to work for the Department of Education. That teacher’s certification was reinstated in January 2023.

Another 21 teachers had their certifications suspended or received a public reprimand after citing personal well-being, health, family health, mental health, COVID, or medical reasons for leaving. A 22nd teacher received a public reprimand and a 23rd teacher had the suspension case dismissed.

Additionally, 19 teachers were suspended after citing family obligations as at least part of their reason for leaving. These included a case where a Richland 1 teacher wanted to spend time with family before a deployment. That teacher’s certification was suspended for a year.

In another case, a Richland 2 teacher resigned over having to relocate because her significant other changed jobs. Her certification was also suspended for a year.

Reasons for the teacher’s resignations varied widely, but other cases included:

  • A Richland 2 teacher resigned because she was taking a new job and as a result of her husband’s military retirement and their move out of state. That teacher was suspended for a year.
  • A Lexington 2 teacher who resigned and was able to demonstrate compelling health reasons. That teacher received a public reprimand.

“Those instances I don’t think are appropriate instances of seeking a teacher’s certificate because there’s no reason why that person should not be allowed to go back into the classroom if their personal circumstances change to where they’re able to work. It’s important to note that when somebody resigns, they’re giving up their salary like there is a consequence for this resignation,” Kelly said.

East echoed Kelly’s concerns about cases involving health and job transfers.

“Why would it be okay? [The teacher] had no control over her spouse moving somewhere to get a different job and they breached the contract,” she said.

Both Bayne and Walters said the circumstances surrounding health concerns are studied for mitigating and aggravating factors.

“They’re also going to look at perhaps accommodations that the district offered to provide the teacher, as well as what those health concerns are,” Bayne said.

Walters said cases are regularly brought where the teacher hasn’t provided any supporting evidence.

“That obviously wouldn’t have as much weight in my opinion as somebody who has a doctor’s letter or some medical records or something that shows it and not just shows that they had a health condition but the severity of it. Is it truly a situation where they had to leave?”

Walters did not comment on the specific cases but stressed the details mattered.

“If they were going to move away for instance, is it something that they had to move right then? Or is it something that they chose to leave earlier rather than when they really had to go?”

The process has been drawn out in recent years.

The timeline between resignation and case resolution varied, but WIS identified cases which lasted more than a year before the state board made their decision.

One of those cases was the public reprimand of former Lexington 2 teacher Cameron Reid. Reid decided to leave the district to become an Academic Advisor and Student Engagement Coordinate for the University of South Carolina Honors College.

“I think I can help [those honors students] be better teachers, better instructors,” she said.

Reid informed her principal of her plans to remain in education and resigned on Aug. 13, 2021.

The Lexington 2 school board voted to report her six days later.

“It’s disheartening because I am still working for Lexington 2, for those students. We have some of those students here that I see on the horseshoe and waive at and I was their 7th-grade science teacher. So, it’s hard to know at least in their eyes or from their actions there seems to be a disconnect,” she said.

She chose the hearing process and prepared for it by gathering communications, documents and studying the process. The hearing never came.

The state board approved a consent order for a public reprimand (with no suspension) in January 2023.

“I have an educated guess that the reason I got the reprimand was because I put in the effort. I made a pre-hearing statement, I attached exhibits, I believe I had a good argument for that I was not resigning with any ill-will, I’m still in education” she said.

She said it cost her “100+ hours” of preparation which brought an emotional toll.

“It was exhausting. With the teacher salary, I don’t have the funding to hire a lawyer so I spent my lunch breaks, my Thanksgiving I stayed here,” she said.

Bayne encouraged teachers to provide materials to support their claims in hearings and Walter cited the virtues of being a self-advocate.

“It’s easier to grant mercy to someone who asks for it than somebody who doesn’t show up,” Walters said.

Reid said suspensions devalue teachers when they are seeking promotions or helping family. She said she’s open to teaching in middle school but isn’t sure if she’d return to Lexington 2.

“Based on the bureaucracy and red tape I faced, no. If I could go back to that school with just that staff and just that leadership and just those students I would,” she said.

Bayne said a pandemic pause on hearing cases created a backlog and more resignations began coming in.

The data supports this, as the number of broken contract cases involving teachers in the studied districts climbed from 32 in 2020 to 90 in 2022.

“The department had to modify how quickly and how many hearing officers, etc. could be used to expedite these cases,” she said.

She said the goal of the board is to get the time period down to 3-4 months.

April 2023 breach of contract records show cases in excess of a year to three months.

Richland 2 and Lexington 2 leading in suspensions

The publicly available records show the number of Midlands teachers being suspended for breach of contract more than doubled from 2020 to 2022 (15 to 40).

Bayne said her hypothesis is the spike is the result of an increase in defaults.

“It comes down to what the future career plans for that individual are. If they don’t intend to go back to the classroom, it may be less important to them to have their voice heard on why a voice on why they think a lesser suspension is warranted because the suspension won’t ultimately impact their ability to earn a living,” she said.

That climb was driven largely by former Richland 2 and Lexington 2 teachers.

WIS compared the annual number of suspended teachers by each district with its total teacher workforce.

The data shows the percentage of teachers being suspended in Richland School District 2 and Lexington School District 2 significantly climbed from 2020 to 2022.

10 former Lexington 2 teachers were suspended in 2022 while 0 were suspended in 2020.

Those 10 teachers would represent 1.63 percent of Lexington 2′s teacher workforce at the time.

That led all Midlands school districts in 2022.

Similarly, 20 former Richland 2 teachers were suspended in 2022. That reflected 1.05 percent of Richland 2′s teacher workforce at the time.

The districts significantly outpaced their counterparts.

The records do not show a single former Lexington 1 teacher suspended for breach of contract from 2020 through 2022.

Teachers from nearby Richland 1 went from having the second-highest rate of suspensions 2020 to middle of the pack in 2022.

Kelly said the frequent rate of suspensions by the districts during the height of the pandemic built reputations and the “word got out” among teachers.

“If you develop a reputation as being likely to go after a teacher’s certificate, for any reason, that’s going to be a disincentive for others to want to come work in your district,” he said.

East raised concerns about what the pursuit of suspensions in certain would do for hiring down the line.

“People aren’t afraid to come back face to face. They’re looking to come back. Will they pick that district? Because you mistreated them, I doubt it,”

Bayne said the districts are empowered to pursue breaches of contract as they see fit.

“The board doesn’t have a specific issue with some districts utilizing it and some districts not. Districts across their operational areas have a great deal of latitude just based on local policy,” she said.

The Lexington 2 School District Board Chair Beth Branham initially accepted an interview with WIS, then subsequently canceled citing a scheduling conflict with her job as an attorney.

She also expressed concerns about facing questions about specific cases and her inability to divulge information.

Branham sent an email to district leaders writing she didn’t want to be on camera looking “non-responsive.”

She sent a statement reading in part:

“…Because of the teacher shortage, It is the District’s practice not to release a teacher from his/her contract until such time as the District has found a suitable replacement for the teacher. If the teacher does not report to work until such time as that replacement has been hired, the Administration will ask the Board to vote to report the teacher to the South Carolina Department of Education for breach of contract…”

Emails obtained by WIS show Richland 2 School Board Chair Lindsay Agostini expressed frustration with former Superintendent Dr. Baron Davis over the lack of information and documentation provided to the board prior to the breach of contract votes.

On Oct. 2, 2022, she wrote to Davis:

I am troubled by the fact the board is continually having to make these potentially life-altering decisions, yet not being provided the necessary information, in a timely manner, to make fair judgment.

“There have been a number of times where I’ve requested additional information from recommendations from administration for breach of contract, and I haven’t received that so I’ve not been able to support it,” she said.

Bayne said there has been no guidance on how in-depth the district must go into the circumstances surrounding the resignation.

“To my knowledge, we have not communicated with the school districts outside of if we don’t receive documents from them that are required for us to open those education certification case files,” she said.

However, districts are required to provide the state board “any other correspondence, information, or documentation that is relevant to the breach of contract.”

Agostini said she could not discuss what happened during the executive session regarding contracts and deferred questions about prior years to the prior chair, despite being on the board at the time.

She did indicate the new board is taking a softer stance on the issue.

The consequences for teachers and students

The vast majority of suspended Midlands teachers were suspended for one year (80 out of 89) but alternative suspensions ranged from two months to 11 months.

Most have not attempted to return to the classroom.

Out of the 85 suspensions across the Midlands, districts studied from 2020-2022, only 13 teachers have taken the proactive step of being reinstated after their suspension (at the time of WIS’ analysis).

That process includes paying a fee, gathering documentation, undergoing a background check and meeting any requirements from the suspension order.

That included four Richland 2 teachers and one Lexington 2 teacher.

However, the suspension system has resulted in at least one teacher being pulled out of a classroom mid-year.

Pulled from the classroom

Department of Education records show former Richland 2 teacher Kristin Sumter struggled with extreme stress and health issues. She resigned effective December 31, 2021, to accept a new job outside of teaching.

Records show she was informed the district would require her to continue teaching until a suitable replacement was found. She did not request medical leave.

However, she helped facilitate a transition and introduced the students to a long-term substitute. Those students proceeded to be taught by two long-term substitutes and a third shorter-term sub, none of whom were certified.

District leadership decided to report her to the state board for breach of contract.

In June 2022, her new job came to an end and Richland 1 hired her in August 2022. She reported to the Department of Education hearing officer that she was doing better in part due to a smaller class size.

The hearing officer for Sumter’s suspension case wrote to the state board that the district “easily” established the contract breach, but Sumter had also established mitigating circumstances. The officer found Sumter’s testimony about the extreme stress/health issues to be credible.

The officer wrote in part:

Removing Sumter from her position in another District during this school year threatens the progress of students with whom she has been working. District provided compelling testimony of the administrative burdens of trying to replace a certified teacher. Requiring more students and another district to experience these burdens would serve no useful purpose. Suspending Sumter during the 2023-24 school year also would accomplish nothing.

In December 2022 (a year after her resignation), the board voted to suspend her certification six months through June 12, 2023, removing her from the Richland 1 classroom.

“I was fired abruptly, so I had to be terminated the next day. There was no way to let the kids know, there was no way to transition and facilitate that so that it could best benefit kids. Now they’re in a situation where they feel like their teacher has just left them for no reason,” she said.

She said she isn’t sure if she’d go back to teaching at Richland 2 once her suspension is up.

“I would say my school there was great, my admin there was great, there was something going on with me,” she said.

She said the certificate suspension process should be clearer and focus more on the details.

“When they look at my case, I would think they would want to look more closely at the ‘why.’ Because some people leave because their administration is not good or they might feel like the kids are not good fit for them, but in certain situations, people feel like it’s what’s best for them,” she said.

She said she’d still be teaching if her license wasn’t suspended.

Bayne said she could not speak on specific cases but the board is diligent in its analysis.

Walters said he was not immediately familiar case.

A pending bill

A bipartisan group of South Carolina lawmakers have filed a bill which would reform the state’s breach of contract process.

The group of nine representatives are signed onto the Educator Assistance Act, which was filed earlier in April. While the bill tackles several issues facing educators, a section is dedicated to clarifying and altering state law on broken contracts.

The bill would change the language of the law to state the state board of education “may” suspend a teacher’s certificate, instead of “shall.”

The change would largely be symbolic because the board currently issues public reprimands and dismissals instead of suspensions when deemed necessary.

However, it would clarify a contradiction between the law and S.C. Department of Education regulations (which allows the reprimands).

The breach of contract language in the bill was copied from a bill Rep. Raye Felder (R-York County) pre-filed in December.

WIS presented her with data showing how teachers have been suspended after citing family and health reasons for their resignations.

“Suspending someone’s ability to earn a livelihood due to the fact they made a best decision for their family, they did not put a child at harm, they did not act unprofessionally in the classroom. That to me seems very punitive,” she said.

It would also cap the suspensions at six months from the date of the breach. Currently, state law caps the suspension at one year from the board’s decision.

Without directly referencing the bill, Bayne said a re-hired teacher (like Sumter) with a retroactive suspension could result in accreditation issues for the new district

“That means [the teacher] hypothetically didn’t have an active license that entire time [they’ve] been at [their] new district,” she said.

The bill remains in the House Education and Public Works Committee.

Notice a spelling or grammar error in this article? Click or tap here to report it. Please include the article's headline.

Stay up to date with WIS News 10. Get the app from the Apple App Store or Google Play Store and Stream us on Roku, YouTube, Amazon Fire, or Apple TV.