By TIM ROWDEN
Teachers who were threatened and assaulted in their classrooms in St. Louis Public Schools faced a difficult choice: continue teaching in a hostile environment in a district that provided little support, or quit, leaving behind jobs they loved but could no longer safely perform, and face a fine from the district for leaving before the end of their contracts.
Thirty-two teachers chose to leave and were sued by the district for leaving their contracts, which included what is known as a “liquidated damages” clause that said the teachers must pay $3,000 plus interest if they resign before the end of their contracts – essentially, holding the teachers hostage.
Four of the teachers were represented by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) Local 420 and challenged the district in court. Local 420 paid for their legal expenses.
On Oct. 27, Circuit Judge Jason Sengheiser ruled the four teachers did not have to pay damages to the district because their contracts were not enforceable in the first place because the Special Administrative Board, which represents the district, did not sign them. Only the teachers had been required to sign.
Sengheiser said the contracts lacked “essential elements” that every contract of a public body must have, including the teachers’ salaries. The judge cited a 1988 Missouri Court of Appeals case, Klotz v. Savannah R-III School District, which requires that “the essential terms of a public contract be fixed when the contract is entered into and that the terms not be left to be determined at some future time.”
The district’s contracts did not list any salary amount and said the St. Louis Board of Education would determine the salary later.
“We are so pleased the court ruled in favor of our members,” said Sally Topping, president of Local 420. “We hope the district will now look for ways to support our teachers, rather than ways to punish them.”
FORCING TEACHERS TO STAY
Topping said the contracts involved in the suit were sent out to all probationary teachers in the district last March. Teachers were given five days to sign them or risk losing their positions for the next school year.
“People felt pressured into signing them,” she said.
“As happens, some teachers found other jobs over the summer and did not return to St. Louis Public Schools,” Topping said. “The other group were teachers who left in the middle of the school year, and almost all of them left because of concerns they voiced because of conditions in the school.”
CLASSROOM VIOLENCE IGNORED BY DISTRICT
Those conditions included violence and threats in the classroom, which the district did little or nothing to correct.
“Security – that’s the number one reason I hear for people leaving,” Topping said.
“They just don’t feel safe. There’s no accountability. There used to be a provision in years past that children were not allowed back in the classroom until the teacher met with the parents so they could actually talk face-to-face about what was happening. What happens now is you’ll send a child out and they may be gone for 10 minutes, they may be gone for the rest of the day, and the next day they’ll be back and you have no idea what happened to that child. The district is disregarding the teachers’ concerns.
“One woman had been punched in the face and the young man was back in the school the next day,” Topping said.
“Another teacher was pregnant and a student said he was going to kill her and slice her open and kill the baby. And there were no repercussions for the child.”
What was hardest for the teachers, Topping said, is that they wanted to stay.
“These teachers, when they quit, there was no ‘Oh, boy, I’m quitting!’ They were crushed,” Topping said. “They were quitting because they were afraid they were going to get hurt or something terrible was going to happen and they’d get blamed.”
When the teachers resigned, the district dropped the hammer, and the teachers turned to the union for help.
“The people who weren’t union members had judgements against them,” Topping said. “The teachers who were union members won.”
A GROWING PROBLEM
Teacher resignations have been a growing problem for St. Louis Public Schools, where many students come to school dealing with trauma and toxic stress. Last year, the district saw 247 teachers resign. The year before, 334 resigned.
The district began requiring teachers to sign the contracts with the $3,000 penalty in 2015.
Emily Perez, an attorney for the Hammond and Shinners Law Firm, which represented the teachers, said Local 420, which recently went through a change in leadership, was aware the contracts existed and that the teachers had been asked to sign them, but hadn’t been involved in negotiation of the contracts.
“It wasn’t something that had been a big concern for the union because the school district hadn’t pursued them in the past, at least not enforcing the penalty,” Perez said.
Topping tried to work with the district to dismiss the suits before the case went to court, but the district was unwilling to compromise.
“One of the defendants had a conversation with the attorney for the school district and was told by the attorney that they were hired primarily to enforce these contracts,” Perez said
“The fact that the district has chosen to use its resources to hire an attorney to aggressively enforce really punitive contracts is astonishing to me,” she said. “I don’t know why a district wouldn’t use its resources to find meaningful solutions with the teachers.
“These teachers are not supported and are not in environments that are conducive to wanting to stay employed,” Perez said. “One teacher had a safety alarm in her room that didn’t work. One teacher got punched in the face by a student. One teacher told me her school ran out of paper in November.
“It’s not that I’m unsympathetic to the district that has a problem with teachers leaving in the middle of the year,” Perez said. “I get that. But is it really best for the kids for the district to force the teachers to stay in the school throughout the year because they’re afraid that they’re going to be sued?
“It’s as if the district is saying ‘Let’s not try to figure out why they’re leaving or fix the reasons why they’re leaving. Let’s hire a new staff lawyer to make them stay.’ It’s bad policy.”
WORKING TOGETHER, TRACKING INCIDENTS
Local 420 is trying to work with the district to resolve the problem.
Topping joined Superintendent Kelvin R. Adams last week at a meeting for new teachers and has offered to work with the district to make improvements so teachers will want to stay.
“We should be doing these meetings from the very beginning,” Topping said. “We should be out there meeting with the teachers in small groups and talking with them. That’s part of the district’s problem. You never see them in the school unless they’re there to criticize.”
Local 420’s next contract with the district comes up in 2021.
Topping said Local 420 has established a grievance tracking system, so the union is able to pull data on the types of problems teachers are facing and the number of times different types of incidents have happened.
“When we go to the bargaining table, we will actually have data to back it up,” Topping said. “It’s a start.”