Heads up for probationary teachers

Although probationary teachers do not enjoy the same kinds of job protections as permanent (or tenured) teachers, there are several legal issues that are unique to probationary teachers.

The probationary period for a teacher in Missouri is five years. Before a teacher can obtain permanent status, he or she must have worked for the same district for five consecutive years. Tenure begins with the sixth consecutive contract. There is an exception to this five-year period: if a teacher has worked two or more consecutive years for another district, he or she only has to work four years as a probationary teacher in a new district. The teacher cannot bring more than one year toward tenure into a new district, regardless of the number of consecutive years in another district. This one-year credit goes toward tenure, but it has nothing to do with placement on the salary schedule.

A probationary contract is good for one year only. It expires at the end of the school year. At that time, the district has complete discretion in deciding whether to hire the teacher back for another year. If the district does not re-hire the teacher, that is called a non-renewal of the contract. As a general legal principle, the teacher has no right to a due-process hearing upon non-renewal of the contract. However, some districts have policies that give due-process rights to non-renewed teachers. When a teacher is non-renewed, he or she should contact his or her UniServ director immediately to determine whether district policy gives any type of due process in that situation.

There is an exception to the rule that the district has complete discretion in the non-renewal decision. The district cannot be discriminatory in its decision to non-renew. State and federal law prohibits a district from non-renewing a teacher solely on the basis of his or her age (over 40), race, religion, nationality, disability, or gender. Therefore, if the only reason a teacher is non-renewed is that the district doesn’t want someone teaching who is older or of a particular race or religion, etc., the district has practiced discrimination. Although I do not doubt that these factors play a role in decisions in some instances, it is extremely hard to prove discriminatory intent in a non-renewal. However, as a Missouri NEA member, a probationary teacher has a right to a consultation with an attorney to determine whether discrimination may have played a role in the decision to non-renew. If a non-renewed teacher believes discrimination may have been involved in his or her non-renewal, he or she should contact his or her UniServ director immediately to arrange a legal consultation.

Missouri law requires that a district notify a teacher in writing prior to April 15 of the decision to non-renew. If the district does not notify the teacher prior to April 15, then the teacher is automatically renewed. MNEA members who are non-renewed are also entitled to a consultation to determine whether the district followed the proper procedures for notification. Again, should this happen to a member, that person should contact his or her UniServ director immediately.

When a probationary teacher is offered a contract for the next year, the teacher has 15 days within which to return the signed contract to the district. Failure to return the signed contract within this time frame is considered a rejection of the contract, which means the teacher will not have a job with the district the next year. If a teacher believes he or she needs longer than 15 days to consider the contract, the teacher should contact his or her UniServ director, who will work to help prepare a request to the district for an extension of time.

Finally, once a probationary teacher signs the contract and returns it to the district, he or she is bound by that contract to work for the district the next school year. There is no “grace” period after signing during which the teacher may resign from the contract. Some districts will work with teachers who want out of contracts for the next year. An MNEA UniServ director can assist the teacher in making this request to the district. However, If the district chooses not to let the teacher out of the contract, the teacher must work in the district the next year. There are serious consequences to breaking the contract, including discipline by suspension or revocation of the teaching certificate and a lawsuit for money damages.

By Jacquie Shipma, former manager of legal services and human resources