The Charleston County School District has shelled out more than $150,000 to pay eight teachers who haven't set foot in a classroom this year because their contracts were not renewed from the previous school year.
Who has attended the hearings?
The Charleston County School Board has held five hearings since April 2013 for teachers whose contracts were not renewed for the current school year. The following is a breakdown of how many hearings each school board member has attended.
Craig Ascue - 5
John Barter* - 1
Cindy Bohn Coats - 5
Chris Collins - 1
Tom Ducker - 5
Chris Fraser - 1
Todd Garrett - 1
Michael Miller - 2
Elizabeth Moffly - 5
*No longer on the school board.
Charleston County School District
The district decided in April 2013 to terminate a group of teachers for the 2013-14 school year, but state law gives them the right to appeal to the county school board.
Ten of them did so; five of those hearings have taken place, but the other five have not, mostly because the board hasn't gotten a quorum of its members - five - together to hear the cases.
Teachers will continue earning a paycheck and not doing any work until the board hears their appeals.
"It's despicable," said Jon Butzon, former leader of a Charleston education advocacy group. "If they had to come up with that $150,000 out of their own pockets, these appeal hearings would've long since been addressed. But it's not their money. They should treat it like it's their money, and that's part of the obligation they have to the citizens of Charleston County."
Four board members have attended all five hearings that have been held. Four other members - Chris Collins, Todd Garrett, Chris Fraser and Michael Miller - have attended either one or two of the five hearings that have been held. Each of those board members said one of the biggest problems is the length of the appeal hearings, which typically take up an entire day.
"Being self-employed ... if I'm not working, I'm not earning an income," said Miller, who owns a barber shop in West Ashley. "I realize it's my responsibility as a board member, but it's extremely difficult to fulfill my obligation to my family considering some of the hearings have taken such a long time. It's difficult to find time in my personal schedule."
Garrett said he and others signed up for some hearings that were canceled by either the district or the teacher involved, not the board. Garrett is an independent contractor who works on commission, and he said he can't afford to miss that much work when the hearings last an entire day.
Those hearings are in addition to the other times board members are expected to be present, such as committee meetings and workshops.
Still, Garrett said that didn't excuse the cost to the district.
"It's a waste," he said, "and it's on us."
Fraser, president of a commercial real estate firm, said this is less an issue of board members' willingness to hear the cases and more an issue of finding five people who have the same day available to hear a case. It's a challenge to give up an entire day of work for these hearings, he said.
"It's a lot of time," Fraser said. "If these things were limited to an hour or two, it would be no problem getting people together. They have become a half-day or full-day event."
Collins, who runs an appliance repair shop, said he had a number of reasons for not being able to attend the hearings. He sometimes was available when others were not, and he said he didn't think the district and board chairwoman have made a good effort to schedule hearings.
Also, he said, the hearings turn into an all-day job, and if he doesn't go to his full-time job, he doesn't get paid.
"I have to work and feed my family," Collins said.
Cost to the district
The school board has heard and decided five teacher appeals in the last several months. Two of those were held last summer while teachers were still under contract for the 2012-13 school year. The other three were held at the start of the 2013-14 school year, and the district paid those three teachers $39,894 for not working this school year. All hearings upheld.
The remaining five teachers have split more than $115,000 in salaries while waiting for their hearings. Those figures don't count the benefits that are paid to teachers, which usually are nearly 25 percent of their salary.
The Post and Courier attempted to reach those five but was unsuccessful in doing so.
After the newspaper began asking questions for this story, two of those five teacher appeal hearings were scheduled for Jan. 28 and Jan. 29. Those who promised to attend were Chairwoman Cindy Bohn Coats, Vice Chairman Tom Ducker, Fraser, Garrett and Tripp Wiles.
Butzon said if board members don't have the time to fulfill their school board duties, they should submit their resignations and hope someone doesn't sue them for not doing their jobs.
Legislation on the way
The monetary cost to the district when the hearings don't happen in a timely way is only one part of a larger problem, said Sen. Paul Thurmond, R-Charleston.
Some districts can't afford to replace the teachers who are waiting for hearings, so substitute teachers are placed in classrooms for months while teachers go through the appeals process, he said. And just being able to not renew a teacher's contract is a "bureaucratic nightmare" that takes away from a principal's main duties, he said.
"My concern, especially having young children, is that we have under our current system a process in which a teacher who is identified as not able to properly educate our children or perform his/her duties has tremendous coverage and bureaucratic process on her or his side if he/she has been in the system more than three years," he said.
Thurmond said he plans to introduce legislation in the coming weeks to address the entire system that doesn't appropriately and efficiently handle under-performing teachers.
He wouldn't give any specifics of his proposal, but said it would address this issue of teachers having the ability to "continue sitting there and marking time" during the appeals process.
Need for reform
Most Charleston school board members agree on the need to change the teacher appeal-hearing process, and they have varying ideas on how that could happen.
Collins questioned why a smaller committee of the board couldn't do the hearing, and their recommendation would be presented to the full board for consideration. The district handled teacher-appeal hearings in that way until November 2011, and district attorney John Emerson changed that process because state law requires teachers to appeal to the full board.
A former Charleston County teacher's case that made it to the state Supreme Court confirmed Emerson's position, with the court finding that "at a minimum, a quorum of the Board must engage in a meaningful review of the evidence and testimony presented at the dismissal hearing."
Garrett suggested that the administration hear the teacher appeals, and the board could receive all relevant documents, ask questions and decide whether the case was handled appropriately.
State law requires the board to determine whether the evidence showed "good and just cause" for the teacher dismissal, but Fraser said the hearings sometimes involve the board evaluating a teacher's competency, which it isn't qualified to do.
State law needs to change so that someone, such as a hearing officer, could evaluate these cases and determine whether the law was followed and process handled fairly, Fraser said.
"It's a flawed system," he said.