By Sally Absher

Last week a group of citizen journalists released a report on their investigation of Knox County Schools dismissal practices at the monthly meeting of Students, Parents, and Educators Across Knox County (SPEAK). Fifth District Board candidate Susan Horn was also in attendance.

The report, “A Review of Personnel Dismissals by Knox County Schools During May and June 2015,” was researched and written by public school advocate Lance McCold; Jennifer Owen, former Knox County teacher and incoming KCS Board of Education member, and Amanda Sanders, a former Knox County school librarian. The authors hope the report generates renewed conversation, especially after the new school board members are seated September 1.

The investigation was initiated following public outcry last June and July, when it was learned that effective teachers in KCS were being dismissed by a practice termed “non-renewal.” Parents and community members said the KCS Board of Education policies for terminating teachers were inconsistent and unfair. The report sheds light on KCS dismissal practices and recommends changes to these practices.

After a months-long effort, the authors completed a review and analysis of redacted personnel files of 72 KCS employees who were dismissed during the months of May and June 2015. Forty one of those files were for teachers, 18 were for teaching assistants, and the remainder included custodians, maintenance personnel, security guards, and an accountant.

The review process was designed to answer four primary questions:

  1. Was there evidence that the employee had a performance problem?
  2. Was there evidence that the supervisor worked with the employee to correct the problem?
  3. Was there evidence that the Human Resources (HR) department reviewed termination recommendations to determine that the termination complied with Board policy before advancing them to the superintendent for approval? and
  4. Was there evidence that the superintendent had access to information that would allow him to distinguish between justified and unjustified terminations?

Only five of 41 non-renewed teachers had any indication of possible performance issues. And of these five, only three files showed evidence that the supervisor had worked with the employee to correct the problem. The authors found no evidence in any of the teachers’ files that either HR or the superintendent had attempted to confirm that the teacher warranted dismissal.

In other words, 88% of non-renewed teachers had no evidence of a performance issue and 93% had no evidence that the teacher had the opportunity to correct possible performance issues. Yet, only one of the non-renewed teachers was rehired by KCS. Why such a low rehire rate, when 88% of the non-renewed teachers had an apparently spotless record? The authors searched existing Board, HR, and KCS administrative procedures and found no policy restricting the rehiring of non-renewed teachers.

Even more disturbing is the finding that six of the non-renewed teachers had received signing bonuses at the beginning of the year they were non-renewed. Some of these teachers were recruited from out of state. The signing bonuses ranged from $3,000 to $12,000. One recipient of a $12,000 signing bonus also received a $2,500 TAP mentor bonus. Yet only one of these teachers had any evidence in their file that there was a performance problem. KCS spent over $40,000 on bonuses for five non-renewed teachers who had no evidence of cause for non-renewal.

Personnel files of classified staff showed inconsistencies throughout, although they were much more likely to contain information regarding reasons for dismissal. For example, of 17 teaching assistants who were “not recommended for continued employment” (NRCE), ten showed evidence of a performance issue, and of these, seven showed evidence the supervisor had worked with the employee. This suggests supervisors are more likely to work with TAs with performance issues than with teachers.

The report recommends that the Board of Education take five specific actions to address the non-renewal of teachers:

  1. Suspend the use of non-renewal for dismissing teachers until an independent review of HR practices has been performed;
  2. Adopt policies stating that when approving employee dismissals, the superintendent shall provide written documentation that he has personally verified the dismissal is justified and that the supervisor made reasonable and appropriate efforts to correct problems before recommending the employee be dismissed;
  3. Instruct the superintendent to direct principals not to consider non-renewal, in itself, as reason not to rehire non-renewed teachers;
  4. Remove the “non-renewal” language from the record of each staff member whose file lacks evidence of performance issues; and
  5. Direct the superintendent to instruct HR to give priority to hiring previously non-renewed teachers who do not have a record of performance issues.

Additionally, the report recommends that the Board establish a KCS audit function, comprised of individuals who do not report directly to the superintendent, to monitor and investigate school operations and report findings directly to the Board.

But more needs to be done. Lauren Hopson, KCEA president, said there are three situations: the law, which KCS follows; Board policy, which is followed sometimes, and how to treat people, which is going above and beyond the law. She said, “We are looking at making sure teachers are not blind-sided, and the only way to know that for sure is to have some kind of documentation.”

She added that it may not be practical to suspend the non-renewal process, but principals should be given options to allow a teacher to transfer to another school or resign to avoid the stigma of “non-renewal.” And better documentation is absolutely needed.

The bottom line is that good teachers were let go, and those remaining are left intimidated by this process. If past patterns continue, between 40 and 50 good teachers will be notified this month that they have been non-renewed, in most cases ending a career based not on personal success or monetary gain, but genuine love of children and concern for the next generation of Americans.