Parents, students and teachers rally in support of Non-renewed teachers.

Parents, students and teachers rally in support of Non-renewed teachers.

By Sally Absher

More than 50 parents, students, and teachers braved threats of thunderstorms to attend a rally outside the City County building prior to last Wednesday’s Board of Education meeting. Most were dressed in red to show support for over 40 non-tenured teachers whose contracts were not renewed for the following school year.

While non-tenured teacher non-renewals are not uncommon in Knox County (KCS says that there were 55 non-renewals last year and approximately 45 this year), the non-renewal of Copper Ridge Kindergarten teacher Christina Graham struck a nerve in that community.

Last April, Graham spoke out against the use of the high stakes SAT-10 assessment for grades K-2. An administrator in her school questioned some of the statements she made during her speech, but she defended and backed up the statements, and thought that was the end of that.

Graham is just one of a number of non-tenured, non-renewed teachers who had satisfactory (rock solid 3s, or above) evaluation scores, high leadership scores, and no indication that there was anything of concern about their performance as a teacher,  prior to being told that their contract was not being renewed for the following year.

In Graham’s case, she has yet to be told why she was being non-renewed. She was, as Jennifer Owen said in Public Forum on Wednesday, blindsided – “hit or attacked on the blind side, or from where they are vulnerable.” Many Copper Ridge parents believe her non-renewal was retaliation for her speech to the BOE.

Copper Ridge parent Kelly Wright helped organize the rally, using social media to get the message out. She created a Facebook event and used the hashtag #saveourteachers.  She posted, “This rally isn’t against an individual… It’s against policy… If we got someone out and we didn’t fix the policy, than you still have the same problems… We have got to fix the root of the problem, that is the policy, and how it is worded…“

School Board member Terry Hill agrees. During last Monday’s Work Session, Hill discussed Knox County Board of Education Policy GBG “Non Tenure.” The policy specifically deals with non-renewal of non-tenured teachers.

The last two lines of the policy state, “The principal is responsible for discussing deficiencies with the non-tenured teacher and providing assistance for overcoming these deficiencies.”

At issue with Ms. Graham and others is that no deficiencies were identified, or discussed. Hill said “We as a school system should never be put in the place of having a teacher who has been under our employ for three years…that has gotten satisfactory evaluations, even shown improvement from year to year,  has scored at an exceptional level on rubrics for leadership, a teacher that for three years our system has invested time and money and energy in training this teacher, at the end of that third year, being told that they are non-renewed without some type of explanation or documentation.”

She said she would also extend this concern to non-tenured teachers who have been riffed (laid off due to their position being eliminated through no fault of their own). She said “I have a real issue that we no longer have priority hiring for these teachers that have been let go through no fault of their own.”

Hill said, “The message we are sending to our teachers when we do this is that we do not value them… It’s very hard for a teacher, no matter how dedicated they are, to be that loyal employee if they know that regardless of what they might do, there is always the potential that they are going to have the rug ripped out from under them….not even given the consideration of a priority appointment in another school.”

She suggested several improvements to Policy GBG, including adding a requirement to protect both teacher and principal to document or keep a written log of all discussions pertaining to the teachers’ performance; and adding the right for teachers with two or more years and satisfactory evaluations who are non-renewed to appeal to the Superintendent or the Board.

Lynne Fugate shared Hills concerns, saying, “It sounds to me like what we have is poor management if a teacher is being non-renewed and they had no idea because in good management you should be having those discussions.” But she added, “It’s important for our community to remember,  we only non-renewed 44 teachers this year out of approximately 4000.”

Patti Bounds said, “I don’t deal in percentages – it’s people’s lives that are at stake, and their careers… 55, 44, whatever the number, is too many in this county in a system this large… We need to look at not only this policy, and revise the policy, we need to look at our hiring practices, and human resources…”

Amber Rountree is also concerned about teachers being non-renewed with no prior discussion of deficiencies. She said that Hamilton County has an appeals process for non-tenured teachers who are not renewed. Non-renewed teachers from KCS are at a huge disadvantage when applying in surrounding counties, because those counties have a very clear definition of “non-renewed” based on the reasons listed in Tennessee Code: incompetence, inefficiency, neglect of duty, unprofessional conduct, and insubordination.

At Monday’s Work Session, Bob Savery spoke in support of Christina Graham. After seeking council from the Law Director and two BOE members prior to the meeting, he made an appeal to the Board’s “ethical and moral side of what is right and what is wrong.”

He asked the Board to “right this terrible wrong done to an amazing teacher.” Citing TCA 49-2-203 b (8), he said the Board of Education has great power in decisions of non-renewal, or as TCA refers to it, “failure of re-election.” He cited the need to revise BOE Policy GBG, as discussed previously.

Savery reiterated his appeal for Graham at Wednesday’s meeting, quoting George Bernard Shaw, who said, “Progress is not possible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.”