Charter status gives Fulton school officials unprecedented power to fire teachers

Apr 13, 2013 by

Students in Fulton County won’t have to spend a year in a classroom with new teachers deemed incompetent, under a policy update that gives unprecedented authority in Georgia for a superintendent to fire teachers.

That rule change and another allowing suspensions without redress angered some teachers but heartened advocates for educational reform. Normally, new teachers get an annual contract, and if they can’t do the job their students suffer the whole year. But Georgia’s fourth largest school district used its recent independence as a “charter” system to give Superintendent Robert Avossa authority to dismiss fresh hires during their first 90 days. He also can now issue short-term suspensions without the typical appeals to a higher authority.

Fulton can sidestep statewide teacher job protections because last year the 94,000-student district joined the ranks of a handful of systems governed by independent charters. These systems gain freedom from some state regulations in exchange for improving academic achievement.

Control over personnel is essential for strong performance, change advocates say. Avossa said he needs authority to undo hiring mistakes so he can build a strong staff. Educational administrators complain about the “dance of the lemons,” a process whereby poorly-performing teachers get passed from one employer to another. A boss will give these teachers a glowing recommendation, so administrators elsewhere will hire them.

“As soon as we hang up, he does the happy dance and we’re stuck with an employee who’s below average,” Avossa said. “We’re not going to do the dance of the lemons anymore.”

Fulton has about 7,000 teachers and hires about 800 a year. If just 1 percent are bad, Avossa said, they’ll come into contact with — and potentially undermine the educations of — as many as 1,200 students.

Avossa said the termination and suspension policies triggered an outpouring of criticism from teachers. The suspension policy allows him to send teachers home without pay, and does not allow for appeals to the local or state school board provided the suspension is no more than 20 days.

Teachers advocacy groups criticized the new policies. John Trotter, founder and chairman of the Metro Association of Classroom Educators, said they’re a “naked grab for power,” exposing teachers to “petty, insecure, vindictive, angry and abusive administrators.”

Calvine Rollins, president of the Georgia Association of Educators, said 90 days is an “incredibly insufficient amount of time” for new teachers to demonstrate effectiveness. She also said the suspension policy allows the superintendent to be both judge and jury behind closed doors, potentially exposing the system to legal liability and costly court battles at taxpayer expense.

Others, though, applauded the new policies, which were approved unanimously Tuesday by the seven members of the school board.

No other system in the state has given its superintendent similar authority to terminate new hires, said Brooks Coleman, R-Duluth, chairman of the education committee of the Georgia House of Representatives.

Coleman, a retired Gwinnett County school teacher and administrator, said it’s obvious within a few weeks whether a new teacher can do the job well, so there is no reason to make a student endure a poor hire beyond then.

“That child doesn’t need to be stuck with a bad teacher for a whole year,” Coleman said.

Coleman applauded Fulton for experimenting with new personnel policies but said he doesn’t want to see the General Assembly imposing them statewide. Each district has unique needs and should be given “the flexibility, with accountability, to try some creative and innovate ways of doing things,” he said.

Joseph Rodriguez, who has a daughter in sixth grade, said the changes seem good, but he had reservations.

“We want quality teachers for our schools so from that perspective, on the surface, it sounds good,” said Rodriguez, who chairs the legislative committee of the South Fulton Council PTA. But, he added, “It’s a little scary to give one person that much authority.”

via Charter status gives Fulton school officials unprecedented… |

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