Reduction in force and the probationary teacher

Probationary teachers have few statutory job protections in Missouri. Simply stated, a probationary teacher has no legal right to continuation of his or her job from one year to the next. If the school district administration decides to non-renew a probationary teacher, the teacher has no legal recourse, absent a constitutional violation or discrimination. Many of these cases are resolved through grievances and board hearings at the local level, requiring organizing of the community. However, this is not the case with respect to a layoff, or reduction in force (RIF).

Section 168.124 RSMO governs teacher layoffs. This statute provides that a district may lay off teachers when one of three conditions is met: a decrease in pupil enrollment, school district reorganization, or the financial condition of the school district.

Most of the layoff provisions of Section 168.124 confer protections on tenured teachers, but several provide protections for all teachers. Subsection (4) states, “No appointment of new teachers shall be made while there are available teachers on unrequested leave of absence who are properly qualified to fill such vacancies.” This subsection previously referred to “permanent” teachers, but in 1993 the word “permanent” was removed, indicating a legislative intent to provide recall rights to probationary teachers on layoff. Subsection (7) states, “the leave of absence shall continue for a period of not more than three years unless extended by the board.”

Many districts in Missouri have attempted to thwart the recall rights of probationary teachers by simply non-renewing instead of laying off. It is Missouri NEA’s position that when a teacher loses his or her job in the district because of the financial condition of that district, the teacher has been laid off, not non-renewed, regardless of what the district chooses to call it. If Sections 168.124(4) and (7), conferring recall rights for three years, are to have any meaning for probationary teachers, then a district should not be able to do an end-run around them by simply non-renewing probationary teachers. Instead, the district should renew the teachers’ contracts and then place them on layoff with three years of recall rights. MNEA is currently challenging the many “non-renewals for financial reasons” that have occurred over the past two years and will continue to protect all the rights member education employees have, however few they may be.

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