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.
â€œWe can't afford $80,000 every time we want to get rid of a teacher,â€ Superintendent Tony Christian said. â€œThat's a big portion of our budget, which is between $8 million and $10 million. That ends up being ... almost 1 percent.â€
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.
â€œI 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,â€ Oklahoma City Superintendent Karl Springer said. â€œAnd it should be final.â€
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.
â€œObviously 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,â€ 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 â€” the fact that he has prevailed twice in the court of law â€” 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 â€œabsolutely courageousâ€ 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.
â€œTragically, 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,â€ Snow said. â€œI've seen it when it's not fair and reasonable and responsible.â€
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.
Snow said the teacher did not belong in a classroom with kids. When he arrived at the district, he began a second termination procedure, and this time prevailed.
â€œYou'd think reasonable people ought to be able to come up with responsible procedures, but I don't think we've been there in my 32 years,â€ Snow said.
Over the course of 20 years that the Due Process Act has been in place for educators, a number of disturbing cases have put questionable teachers back into classrooms, said Julie Miller, attorney with the Oklahoma State School Boards Association.
One case in Bryan County reinstated a teacher who had threatened to beat up a principal, and another case from Watts reinstated a teacher who had slapped a special education student.
Miller said those two cases and the Quigley case are examples where teachers won on appeal because of legal technicalities that had nothing to do with what was in the best interests of students.
â€œWe're very unique with our teacher due process and administrative due process in that we have specific requirements for probation, warnings and statutory grounds. Not a lot of states go into that detail,â€ Miller said. â€œHonestly, I'm an attorney, but the way we've made it so complicated is we've just created a business opportunity.â€
There are eight reasons a career teacher may be fired: willful neglect of duty, repeated negligence in performance of duty, mental or physical abuse to a child, incompetency, instructional ineffectiveness, unsatisfactory teaching performance, commission of an act of moral turpitude or abandonment of contract.
None of those reasons for dismissal are defined, although state law does make it clear that a teacher can be fired for â€œcriminal sexual activityâ€ which is defined as the act of sodomy.
Abandonment of contract is defined as not showing up for work only â€œwhen the teacher has accepted other employment.â€
â€œWe can't use abandonment of contract to fire a teacher who doesn't show up for work. We have to use willful neglect of duty, put them on a plan for improvement, wait and then fire them,â€ Miller said.
The strongest proponents of the Teacher Due Process Act are teachers and the unions that represent them, but even on that front, there has been some concession.
Oklahoma's largest teachers union, the Oklahoma Education Association, did not return calls requesting interviews for this story.
Ed Allen, president of the Oklahoma City American Federation of Teachers, said there is room for improvement.
â€œYou can't get rid of due process,â€ Allen said. â€œWe agree it takes too long, and it costs too much money. Having said that, we're uncomfortable â€” since boards are political bodies â€” that that's the final word.â€
Allen proposes a measure where there is a more complete hearing before the board with a neutral hearing officer, and then any decision is subject to a judicial review that simply looks at procedural questions to ensure the law was followed.
â€œPeople do make false accusations, and boards tend to want to support their superintendent sometimes regardless of the facts,â€ Allen said.
Also advocating for serious change is Sen. John Ford, R-Bartlesville, who introduced legislation last year that would have done away with trial de novo and said he would do so again this year.
â€œWe don't want to take away anyone's due process,â€ Ford said.
â€œWhat we're doing is making the process take place at the board level with a more complete hearing. The school board's decision would be final, although all employees, if civil rights have been violated or other specific violations have