State News

Educators, school administrators divided over bill that would let teachers look for other jobs while under contract

By Peter D’Auria/VTDigger

Under Vermont law, once teachers sign a contract to teach for the upcoming school year, they must honor it.

Unless they have “just cause” to leave the job, a teacher who breaks a contract will be barred from teaching in a public school for the rest of the academic year.

Now, a new bill before the Vermont legislature aims to change that. S.162, which was introduced last month, would give teachers a roughly two-month window to search for and accept new jobs — even while under contract to teach elsewhere.

“The (Senate Education) Committee is talking about, ‘How can we make Vermont the best place to be a teacher?’” said Sen. Andrew Perchlik D/P-Washington, the bill’s sponsor. Part of the solution, he said, could involve, “(respecting) teachers’ ability to get the job that matters most for them and their family.”

But the proposal has divided Vermont’s education sector, with teachers in favor and school administrators strongly opposed.

The state chapter of the National Education Association, the teachers union, argues that the bill simply gives teachers a right that many other workers take for granted: the ability to look for a new job, even after agreeing to work elsewhere.

“No other professional in the public or private sector is required to get permission from a boss to interview for a new position,” said Jeff Fannon, the executive director of the Vermont teachers union, told the Vermont Senate Committee on Education.

Vermont school administrators issue contracts to teachers after voters approve districts’ budgets, which usually takes place on Town Meeting Day. Contracts must be sent out no later than April 15.

After that, teachers usually have two weeks to sign them, though some can get extensions. Contracts generally begin on July 1.

If the bill passes, teachers would have until June 15 to search for, interview at and accept jobs in other districts, even if they have signed a contract to teach elsewhere. That window, Fannon said, would give teachers a “modest and reasonable amount of flexibility” to search for and accept jobs that are closer to home or offer better pay.

But if teachers are allowed to accept other jobs after signing a contract, school administrators say, it could leave districts scrambling to fill positions before the beginning of the school year.

“A contract is a contract is a contract,” Mark Tucker, the superintendent of Caledonia Central Supervisory Union, told the Senate Committee on Education last week. “The idea that someone can sign a contract, and then actively seek to break that contract, defies common sense and is an affront to common practice.”

Principals and superintendents also fear the bill could exacerbate staffing shortages in rural and lower-income school districts, as teachers leave last-minute to go to districts with better salaries.

“It’s a real scary bill for principals and superintendents, whose primary responsibility (is) to make sure there’s teachers in front of their kids,” Jay Nichols, the executive director of the Vermont Principals’ Association, said in an interview. “And in the places where there’s more poverty, or relative poverty compared to the districts around you, it’s a huge disadvantage.”

Perchlik, the sponsor of the bill, said he was open to compromise.

“I’m trying to be fair to the school, and fair and respectful of the teachers as a profession,” he said.

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