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Originally published: 2013-11-04 10:58:03
Last modified: 2013-11-04 10:58:48

WCS plans for end of teacher tenure

Watauga County Schools administrators say they are working hard to comply with the state law enacted in July that eliminates teacher tenure, also known as career status.

In an update to the Board of Education on Friday, Human Resources Director Stephen Martin described how he and senior administrators are implementing the change here.

It was one of numerous topics discussed in the lengthy work session Friday, but interim Superintendent David Fonseca identified it as one of the most important.

"This is the big picture in the district," Fonseca said. "This is dominating morale right now."

Under the former system, probationary teachers who taught for four years could receive tenure. Tenure also was available to staff members such as guidance counselors, psychologists, media coordinators and speech pathologists but not to administrators, teacher assistants, cafeteria workers or other employees, Martin said.

While probationary teachers' employment could be terminated for almost any reason, tenured teachers could be removed for only 15 specific reasons, including inadequate performance, immorality, neglect of duty, felony conviction, habitual or excessive alcohol use, or other reasons. Tenured teachers also are entitled to a more rigid process and hearing if the school wishes to terminate them.

Staff members who already were tenured may remain in that system until 2018.

But the General Assembly's action this summer prohibited tenure for any teacher who didn't already have it, in favor of a contract plan and eventually a pay-for-performance model.

Proponents of the change say it seeks to reward quality teachers who improve student learning, rather than simply those who have taught for many years or have advanced degrees.

School systems across the state are now responsible for identifying 25 percent of teachers to offer four-year contracts starting next school year, Martin said. The other 75 percent will receive one-year contracts.

Of 397 teachers employed by Watauga County Schools, at least 253 are eligible to receive the four-year contracts, Martin said. HR staff is still determining whether about 15 others would qualify.

At those levels, approximately 60 to 70 teachers will be offered four-year contracts, which must be signed by June 30, 2014, he said.

The schools are now in the arduous process of determining which of those should be offered four-year contracts, which are accompanied by a gradual pay bump that equates to $5,000 more over four years. Tenured teachers offered four-year contracts would have to relinquish their tenure early to accept the contract.

Starting in 2018, tenure will be completely eliminated and teachers will be offered one-, two- or four-year contracts. The General Assembly intends to move to a pay-for-performance model that pays "better" teachers more, but those criteria have not yet been determined.

Several at the meeting, including board members Brenda Reese and Ron Henries, said they considered it nearly impossible to accurately assess teachers' performance, saying the process was subjective and could vary wildly based on the evaluator.

The school system is now deciding what criteria to use in offering four-year contracts to certain teachers next spring, Martin said. He said no consensus has yet been reached, but he hopes it is developed by January. Martin said WCS wants to thoroughly inform teachers of the criteria once a plan is formed.

The school system will then determine who to offer the longer contracts and bring those names to the Board of Education for approval, possibly around March, Martin said.

The Board of Education has ultimate authority to pick the individual teachers offered four-year contracts, Martin said. That fact has raised some concerns across the state, especially for smaller districts, where board members are likely to know staff personally and could cherry-pick those they like.

"I think it's very important that we go down this path together," Martin said. "If we have changes (to the list of names) by the board, it's going to get messy."

Fonseca noted that the school system is trying to keep employees well-informed.

"I think that we're being very, very proactive," Fonseca said. "It's a very difficult subject, unheard of, unprecedented in North Carolina."


Technology updates

The Board of Education also received information Friday on technology needs, including plans to continue and expand the "1 to 1" initiative.

The initiative put laptop computers in the hands of Watauga High School students and teachers three years ago, and those computers are now under consideration for replacement.

Chris Devera, director of technology services, showed examples of the equipment currently being tested in classrooms across the school system, which includes iPads, tablet PCs, Chromebooks and more.

Devera said the school system is negotiating lease options for the technology, with a possibility of younger students sharing devices. He said the school system needs to choose which devices to use, sign a lease and receive the devices in the spring in order to roll them out in fall 2014.

Almost all projectors within the district also are out of warranty and need to be replaced in the next couple of years, Devera said, at a cost of about $300,000.


Strategic budget plan

With technology and other needs on the horizon, Fonseca presented a draft budget plan for the next five years and beyond.

The closest current estimate to replace aging WHS laptops and expand the technology initiative to the elementary schools is about $3.325 million, Fonseca said.

Other expected costs revolve around school operations, curriculum and other areas.

The group also talked long-term about projections for when current school buildings will need to be entirely replaced.

Fonseca introduced a chart showing the projected life cycles of the current buildings, with Hardin Park expiring in 2018, followed by Valle Crucis in 2023, Bethel in 2028, Green Valley in 2033, Blowing Rock and Parkway in 2038, Mabel in 2053 and Cove Creek in 2058.

Watauga High School, the central office and the county maintenance garage also will need replacement eventually, Fonseca said.

Maintenance Director Dennis Ray clarified that the years listed would be the goal for starting the school replacement process, with the doors opening four to five years later.

Fonseca said he hopes county commissioners will allow a meeting with school staff to talk about the future -- regardless of the fact that he is an interim leader.

"We need to say to our local funding source, you're not overfunding us," Fonseca said. "We have a plan, and that plan starts now."


Other topics

The board also received information about the exceptional children program improvement plan (a required annual report), a request to start middle school wrestling teams and a suggestion from Fonseca to change the procedure for international field trips to seek more answers before approval.

Members also received information about the N.C. School Boards Association policy overhaul plan, which will be discussed further at their meeting Monday.

They also heard from Louis Gallien, the new dean of the Reich College of Education at Appalachian State University.

The Board of Education meets next at 7 p.m. Monday for its monthly meeting. The meeting was moved from Nov. 11 due to the Veterans Day holiday.