Fire at Will: New Authority for Louisiana Supes
I’m going to be honest: In my 15 years as a school superintendent, there were times when I wished I could just fire a teacher for not doing the job. I didn’t feel this way often, which speaks to the high quality of the teachers employed by the district. Still, I thought, how gratifying it would be to simply remove an inept employee from the classroom and the payroll without having to go through a long, drawn-out process and years of often unsuccessful professional development. Then I would wake up, talk to my board president, remember due process, and work with the teacher on an improvement plan.
The problem, I thought, was tenure. Once teachers get tenure (after three years), relieving them of their duties is time consuming and costly. In addition, there is little guarantee that the district will prevail in a tenure hearing unless the teacher’s behavior is blatantly outrageous or illegal. Simple incompetence is hard to prove. So I did what I could with recalcitrant faculty members and focused hard on new teachers, knowing that it was my responsibility to make sure that anyone I recommended for tenure was highly competent.
Now, as if to prove the adage, “Be careful what you wish for,” the Louisiana legislature passed a bill (Act I) last month that gives superintendents the authority to hire and fire without school board approval. Christina A. Samuels reports that Robert L. Hammonds, legal counsel to the Louisiana School Boards Association, sums it up this way: “Most [superintendents] are not jumping up and down and clapping about the ability to make all these decisions unilaterally.”
The legislation is a double-edged sword. While it gives superintendents the authority to act independently without board approval, the authority to fire the superintendent still resides with the board. I have had experience with wholesale firings and resignations at the college level when a new president came on board, and I can tell you that when the body count becomes too high, the next one to go is likely to be the chief administrator. I suspect the same may turn out to be true at the K-12 level.
While giving superintendents more power over personnel, the bill also requires superintendents in districts rated C, D, or F to have performance goals built into their contracts. About 80% of the state’s schools fall into those categories.
So now superintendents are between a rock and a hard place. If you have to meet certain targets in your own contract regarding student progress and graduation, you may want to get rid of teachers who are obstacles. On the other hand, unilaterally removing groups of teachers (especially locals)can cause school board members to look askance.
Act I also extends the tenure period from three to six years. At first this might be considered a good thing, but to be awarded tenure teachers must be rated “highly effective” five out of six times. It seems unlikely that a new hire would immediately be highly effective in the classroom, which means a teacher would have to hit the mark by year two. So much for staff development.
So the next school year in Louisiana will be carefully watched. I will be interested in seeing which will increase – the number of teachers fired or the number of teachers rated “highly effective."