Oklahoma law makes firing bad teachers costly and drawn out

Superintendents, senators, lawyers and even union leaders are calling for a change in Oklahoma law that they say makes it near impossible to fire a teacher absent a criminal conviction.
BY MEGAN ROLLAND mrolland@opubco.com Modified: November 26, 2010 at 7:26 am •  Published: November 26, 2010
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It cost Purcell Public Schools about $80,000 and the better half of a year to fire a teacher who was later charged with lewd acts with a child.

“We can't afford $80,000 every time we want to get rid of a teacher,” Superintendent Tony Christian said. “That's a big portion of our budget, which is between $8 million and $10 million. That ends up being ... almost 1 percent.”

Christian is one of an increasingly vocal group of superintendents calling for a change in Oklahoma's Teacher Due Process Act, a set of laws they say makes firing teachers, administrators and support staff very difficult.

“I don't think I'm alone in thinking that if a board of education has the ability to hire a teacher, they should be able to fire a teacher,” Oklahoma City Superintendent Karl Springer said. “And it should be final.”

But under Oklahoma law, the decision to fire a tenured teacher is not anywhere close to final.

Oklahoma is one of only two states that allow teachers to appeal a board's decision directly to a district court for not just a review of the proceedings but an entirely new trial, or trial de novo.

A new trial

English teacher Joe Quigley says the Teacher Due Process Act is absolutely essential.

Quigley is in the rare position of having been fired from Oklahoma City Public Schools in 2009 only to be reinstated by a district judge upon appeal. The case is now at the Oklahoma Supreme Court. The school board has twice appealed decisions that Quigley was wrongfully terminated.

“Obviously the district proceedings are weighted in favor of the district and the only chance a teacher has to independently present their case is the trial de novo,” Quigley said.

Meanwhile, Quigley is in the classroom at Douglass High School working with students. He was originally fired for willful neglect of duty, incompetency, repeated negligence in performance of duty, instructional ineffectiveness and unsatisfactory teaching.

Quigley maintains he was fired because of his vocal advocacy that the school board create protections for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students in its student handbook.

He says his case — the fact that he has prevailed twice in the court of law — is evidence that his May 2009 hearing before the school board was slanted against him.

Springer sees the opposite in the current system, saying it is so heavily slanted in favor of teachers that school boards must be “absolutely courageous” to pursue a teacher dismissal for anything less than criminal behavior.

It's not known how much it has cost Oklahoma City Public Schools in legal fees to attempt to fire Quigley, but the case has lasted 18 months and is in its third court.

The teacher due process act is only for those teachers who have reached tenure, which is gained by working for the same district for three consecutive years.

A legal history

When Oklahoma passed the sweeping education reform act House Bill 1017 in 1990 it included a set of protections for teachers, administrators and support staff that is today known as the Teacher Due Process Act.

Before that the pendulum swung in the other direction and teachers could be fired at the whim of a new administrator, said Lloyd Snow, who has been a superintendent for 32 years.

“Tragically, a board of education would get mad at the baseball coach for not throwing the right pitcher and losing the baseball game, and they would get him gone. Not only from coaching but from teaching,” Snow said. “I've seen it when it's not fair and reasonable and responsible.”

But Snow says after 1990 the pendulum swung too far the other way. There was a case in Sand Springs, where Snow is the superintendent, that went to trial de novo, and the court ruled against the district.

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