March 5, 2014

CMS on NC tenure controversy: We’ll ask for change, not sue

School board leaders said Wednesday they’ll ask state lawmakers to postpone controversial changes to the teacher tenure system so Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools can create a better plan.

School board leaders said Wednesday they’ll ask state lawmakers to postpone controversial changes to the teacher tenure system so Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools can create a better plan.

But they say they won’t join Guilford and Durham county schools in a lawsuit to block the state plan, which requires all North Carolina districts to choose 25 percent of qualified teachers to receive four-year contracts and $500-a-year raises.

The five members who met in committee Wednesday said they want to support teachers without alienating lawmakers who hold authority over public education and control most of the CMS budget.

“We are offering to bring solutions,” said board member Eric Davis.

At issue is the General Assembly’s mandate, approved last summer, to phase out teacher tenure and replace it with one-, two- and four-year contracts. It requires districts to offer four-year contracts to 25 percent of teachers who have worked for the district for at least three years and have proficient job ratings.

That plan has proved unpopular with teachers, superintendents and school boards, who say the 25 percent cap requires an arbitrary selection process that will demoralize those not chosen. The N.C. Association of Educators has filed suit challenging the constitutionality of the plan, and many teachers say they won’t accept the contracts because it requires them to surrender their “career status” rights.

Pressure escalated when the Guilford County school board voted last month to file its own lawsuit to block the tenure plan, bringing an immediate rebuke from Phil Berger, president pro tem of the state Senate. The Durham school board voted Wednesday afternoon to join Guilford’s suit.

Tuesday night, the Wake County school board voted unanimously to call for repeal of the law, though the board stopped short of joining legal action. Dozens of teachers showed up to applaud the vote.

The board members who met Wednesday said action by other districts is increasing pressure for CMS to take a stand, but they don’t want to antagonize the legislators who could help them craft a better approach.

The committee, which constitutes a majority of the nine-member school board, voted to put a resolution on Tuesday’s agenda asking the state to delay the 25 percent mandate and let CMS offer a counterproposal.

“You’re up a creek if you do. You’re up a creek if you don’t,” said Chairwoman Mary McCray, a retired teacher and former president of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Association of Educators. “We don’t want to stick it to anybody.”

Board members say the state plan forces them to deny raises and four-year contracts to many good teachers, including high performers recently hired from outside CMS.

“If you run the numbers, we will have a long-term relationship with about 15 percent of our teaching corps. I just think that’s a recipe for disaster,” Vice Chairman Tim Morgan said. “I think the majority of our folks are good teachers.”

Jonathan Sink, a CMS lawyer who works with the state legislature, said legislative leaders have talked about increasing the cap to 40 percent of eligible teachers. But members said even a much higher limit is problematic.

“Seventy-five percent is just as arbitrary as 25 percent,” Davis said. “It’s just a bigger arbitrary number.”

Board member Ericka Ellis-Stewart noted that lawmakers may be getting impatient with districts’ efforts to come up with their own plans to reward top teachers.

CMS has been studying performance-based pay systems for four years. Last year the state invited districts to submit performance-pay proposals for review, although there was no promise that money would be available to put them into practice. CMS convened a committee to draft a plan, then announced at the last minute that it wouldn’t meet the state deadline.

“If I’m someone in Raleigh I might think, ‘We gave you the opportunity last year and you didn’t do it,’ ” Ellis-Stewart cautioned.

The board committee said revising the tenure plan will be one of three issues it will push during this year’s short session of the General Assembly, which starts May 14. The others are raising teacher pay and getting more flexibility on issues such as the school calendar and summer camps for third-graders who fail reading exams.

Meanwhile, the clock is ticking on the tenure plan. The law calls for four-year contracts to be signed by the end of June, which means CMS will need to identify the 25 percent and make the offers by late May, Sink said.

Superintendent Heath Morrison is scheduled to update the board on that effort Tuesday.

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