After a closed session at its Monday meeting, the Garden City USD 457 Board of Education returned to open session and agreed to ask the state to suspend the teaching licenses of three former district teachers who resigned and left their positions past district deadlines for the 2018-19 school year and have yet to be adequately replaced, which district officials say violates their contracts.
The board voted to direct its counsel, Randy Grisell, to prepare written complaints to file with the Kansas State Board of Education Professional Practices Commission, or PPC. The complaints will request the suspension of former USD 457 teachers Amanda Brook Trenkle, Courtney Morris and Erin Marshall’s teaching licenses for the remainder of the current school year, citing contract breaches.
Grisell, Superintendent Steve Karlin and Deputy Superintendent Heath Hogan were invited to the closed session preceding the vote. Board member Jean Clifford said she abstained from the vote because she knew some of the teachers involved. The rest of the board members, all of whom were present, voted in favor of the motion upon returning to open session.
The motion and process it kicks off are uncharted waters for the district, which has notified the state about similar situations in the past but never pursued further action, Karlin said. When the notifications brought few results and past teacher shortages persisted, sending the district into new school years with over 30 unfilled positions in both 2016 and 2017, administrators and the board sought Grisell’s advice to find suitable deterrants for teachers.
“When we’re unable to fill one of these positions with a full licensed teacher, that’s not the best for kids and it also puts a burden on the other teachers in that building,” Karlin said.
The board’s ruling hinges on a provision of the 2017-18 negotiated agreement between the district and its teachers stating that a teacher who resigns more than two weeks after the third Friday of May, a state statute-dictated deadline, may only be released from a contract when the teacher pays a decided liquidated damages charge and when the district finds a suitable replacement.
Until that point, the teacher is “expected to continue discharge of duties until the end of a contract term.” For 2017-18 teachers, the majority of whose contracts were renewed in April, it meant they were contractually bound to work through the end of the 2018-19 school year unless released by the board.
A Kansas administrative regulation allows the process stating that a license is subject to suspension or revocation through a PPC hearing due to “breach of an employment contract with an education agency by abandonment of the position.”
Morris, Marshall and Trenkle were three of the district’s four employees who submitted letters of resignation after the statutory deadline, which this year fell on June 1, and none of the positions were filled by the beginning of the new school year, USD 457 Public Information Officer Roy Cessna said in an email. As a result, the fourth employee returned to work in August, but Morris, Marshall and Trenkle didn’t, Cessna said.
Cessna said in the email that three teachers’ positions “have been or will be covered by a long-term substitute,” but Karlin said the temporary solution did not count as a “suitable replacement.” For that, the district would need a full-time, fully licensed teacher, Karlin said.
Filling teacher positions, especially due to late resignations, is not a new problem in the district, Karlin said, nor are the suspension requests a new solution. On Monday, the board also approved the 2018-19 negotiated agreement, which included significant hikes to liquidated damages charges, bumping late resignation fees to $2,500 instead of $400 before July 1, and $4,000 after July 1 instead of $1,200 in July or $2,000 in August.
After Grisell files the complaints to the PPC, which Karlin said could be done within the next week, the PPC will hold a hearing concerning the case, Scott Gordon, general counsel for the Kansas State Department of Education, stated in an email. He said the hearings are scheduled in the order complaints are filed and may not be scheduled for several months after they're filed. After the hearing, the PPC makes a recommendation to the Kansas State Board of Education, which makes the final ruling on the suspensions.
The process, if successful, could affect the current or future jobs of the teachers involved. Morris, a former eighth-grade teacher at Horace Good Middle School, resigned June 27 to accept a teaching position at Garden City Community College that was not available until after June 1.
“I had interviewed for a position previously, so when the opportunity came available I could not pass it up. Not only has it been my dream to teach at the college level, but it was a better opportunity for me as a single parent,” Morris said in a text message.
Morris said she does not need her current license to teach at GCCC, and she and her former colleagues’ licenses will be valid until the state board chooses to temporarily suspend them. However, she and Trenkle, who planned to substitute teach after moving this year, said teaching applications often ask teachers whether their license has ever been suspended or revoked and that the answer may mean long-term consequences.
“In a preliminary situation, if somebody just sees your application and they see (the suspension), I mean you might go in the discard pile. I think if you could get in front of someone and explain your circumstances, that could be completely different. But is it going to hurt you when they just review applications and you don’t make it past round one because of that? Absolutely,” Trenkle said.
The district received Trenkle’s resignation on Aug. 13, one day before the district’s first half-day of school. The last-minute separation came after her husband, former GCCC men’s basketball coach Brady Trenkle, was offered an out-of-state job on Aug. 7, which he accepted on Aug. 10. Amanda Trenkle, a former sixth-grade teacher at Bernadine Sitts Intermediate Center who was transferred to an eighth-grade position at Kenneth Henderson Middle School for this year, said she alerted her principal about the offer the day after her husband received it, emailed her letter of resignation the day he accepted it and took a copy to the Educational Support Center on Aug. 13. When Hogan called her about the resignation on Aug. 15, she said, it was the first time she ever heard that license suspension was a risk of the separation.
“I had no idea and never have once been told that a school board or your own district could pursue action with the state Board of Education to revoke and suspend your license. To me, it’s egregious. It’s very extreme … It’s heartbreaking for me. And I feel like I could fill a need in another child’s life, and this board or district could keep me from doing that,” Trenkle said.
It was bad timing, she said, and she feels like she let her coworkers down, but added that she thought she “did the right thing.” She said she didn't think it would be fair to their children for her and her husband to live apart until the district could find a replacement.
On top of that, when a replacement could be found was unclear. She said when Hogan was explaining the circumstances of her departure, he said it was uncertain how soon a replacement could be found, and that the recruiting environment was difficult at the moment.
It was a “no-win,” Trenkle said.
Marshall, a former eighth-grade teacher at HGMS, resigned July 9, but did not respond to requests for comment.
Karlin said there were circumstances, backed up in the 2017-18 negotiated agreement and state statutes, where the board could choose to release an employee from contractual duties without penalty, but they were reserved for cases where the employee or a family member had a serious illness, or otherwise was facing situations outside their control. He said, to his understanding, the three teachers’ reasons for leaving were “personal choices.”
The goal of the suspension requests were not to punish the three teachers, but to encourage them to “fulfill their contracts” by returning to work until a replacement can be found, Karlin said.
“We certainly understand there are reasons teachers leave, and we’re sorry to lose those teachers when they choose to leave. But, when we know early, then we have a reasonable opportunity to fill those positions…” he said. “We try very hard to fill these positions. But with the teacher shortage, it makes it more difficult. When you get a resignation on July 7, new teachers in our district reported... I think, on Aug. 3. So that’s less than a month to be able to find that replacement. When you get a (resignation) on the 13th of August and school starts on the 14th. We want to have quality teachers in every one of our classrooms, and that contract works both ways. It protects the teacher, but it also protects the district.”
Contact Amber Friend at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction: In an earlier version of this story, a Kansas administrative regulation was incorrectly referred to as a state statute.