SC’s largest education association on Richland One teacher reassignments: ‘It’s ignoring the human element of education’

Published: Oct. 21, 2023 at 12:54 AM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - Richland School District One confirmed Friday that 11 teachers will be reassigned to new schools within the district mid-year, and the Director of Governmental Affairs for the state’s largest education association says this is shortsighted, unfortunate, and could have been avoided.

“It’s ignoring the human element of education,” Patrick Kelly of the Palmetto State Teachers Association said. “Teaching is about more than just standing and delivering instruction. It’s not just putting a robot in front of someone. It’s about building deep human relationships.”

Richland One has released a complete list of the 14 impacted elementary schools, seven of which will be losing a teacher.

Those include Satchel Ford, Brennen, Logan, and Hyatt Park elementary schools.

The reassignments will impact hundreds of students, and not are not only affecting the children losing teachers.

Other teachers at these schools are having to be reassigned and shuffled around to make up for the transfers. This will effectively create a ripple effect that will force many students to adjust to new routines.

The move has angered impacted families, who say the abrupt manner in which this was done was “confusing” and “unprofessional.”

While the exact dates of the transfers could shift depending on the school, the plan is for the reassignments to take effect at some point next week when students return from fall break.

Richland One Superintendent Dr. Craig Witherspoon ensured there would be a “smooth transition” on both ends, but did not provide further specifics.

These changes come after nine weeks, and 45 days of instruction.

The district says it made the decision based on class sizes and teacher-student ratios.

Witherspoon said the reassignments are not uncommon, and similar moves have been made in the district for decades.

“Looking at those projections and then actual enrollments, but this is normal that it happens around this time of the year,” he said.

Kelly, who has also been a Midlands educator for 20 years, said while shifting of individual teachers does occur during a school year, he cannot remember an instance where something like this occurred after the first grading period.

“This is, if not unprecedented, it is certainly completely abnormal to move this number of teachers midstream for something that apparently was due only to an inability to plan for student enrollment numbers,” he said.

Richland School District Two and Lexington-Richland School District 5 say they are not currently doing any similar teacher reassignments.

When asked why the district did not make this decision on day 10, Witherspoon said there is still movement on day 10 so they try to do this when things are more “settled.”

Kelly believes that argument is not valid because schools have a “very firm grasp” on enrollment numbers heading into the school year.

While those numbers can fluctuate, he said it should not skew ratios in an entire building or classroom.

“I can’t buy the ‘we couldn’t make this change up front’ argument, and I would still say day 10 was too late,” Kelly said. “There was enough, you have enough enrollment data on students to be able to make these kind of personnel decisions before the school year starts. That’s when this should have happened if it needed to happen at all.”

There’s a bill currently working its way through the State House that could be amended to curb this type of move mid-year, according to Kelly.

Rep. Neal Collins, R-Pickens, has filed legislation that would make it so that districts cannot mandate that teachers conduct duties beyond the scope of the instructional day unless they are compensated.

Kelly said a provision could be added to teacher contract law that says once a teacher is assigned to a school, that teacher can’t be reassigned during the school year “except for an extreme or unavoidable circumstance,” like a natural disaster or teacher death.

While the teacher reassignments by Richland One are legal, Kelly argues that they are not in the best interest of students and educators.

“If this current existing contract language can be abused in this way and contribute to a growing educator shortage and contribute to students losing access to their teachers, then yeah, we would support legislative action to make sure that that doesn’t happen again.”

Rep. Heather Bauer, D-Richland, whose district includes some of these affected schools, says she’s been inundated with calls from constituents about this.

If something is impacting her constituents, she said in a Friday interview that it would be a focus of hers.

“Clearly there’s a process not working and we need to figure that out,” Bauer said. “So maybe that is this piece of legislation that can help with it, but that’s why I’m doing the fact-finding that I’m doing is I have to figure out what’s going on.”

Some impacted parents tell WIS that they received phone calls on Thursday night from the principals of their schools, who have been scrambling to keep class sizes as small as possible while at the same time meeting these new demands.

Guen Kasperski, whose daughter is set to lose her fourth-grade teacher at Satchel Ford, said she is “appreciative” of the fact that she finally received some official communication after being told nothing all week about the situation.

Kasperski and other parents remain frustrated about how this was handled, however.

When asked about the lack of communication, Witherspoon said, “There was a transition plan in place so was that plan given the time to be executed, that is something that we’re looking at.”

Kelly said he does not think this decision is going to help the teacher shortage in the Midlands, especially in Richland One.

It is likely going to make it less likely that these specific teachers return to the district, Kelly added, and will also potentially hurt recruitment as other teachers around the state see what is happening in this instance.

One Richland One teacher who did not want to be identified for fear of retaliation said this entire situation is “unacceptable.”

Barbara Weston, Richland One board member, said if this had happened to her when she was an educator, she would have quit on the spot.

Burton-Pack Elementary, which is expected to receive two teachers in this process, received a failing state report card last year.

But Witherspoon said the decisions are solely about student ratio and class sizes, and denied that performance had any impact.

“This is student ratio, class sizes, that’s what this piece here is about,” he said.

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