Teacher appeals rack up huge bills District trying to speed up lengthy, costly process

The Charleston County School Board has burned through hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars by failing to hold appeal hearings in a timely fashion for teachers whose contracts have not been renewed.

State law required a majority of the nine-member board to meet and hear teacher appeals, but the board often struggled for months to gather enough members to hold a hearing.

In all, the school district spent at least $650,000 since April 2013 due to lengthy, state-mandated proceedings for 15 teachers who protested the non-renewal of their contracts, according to data provided by the district.

As teachers waited in limbo for as long as 22 months, unsure whether they would be allowed to return to their classrooms, the bulk of the money — $484,000 — went to pay their salaries as if they were still teaching.

The rest of the money went to outside attorneys and, recently, to third-party hearing officers, who stand in for the board at hearings and present their written findings for the board’s ultimate decision. The hearing officers are attorneys who charge the district an hourly rate, but in the past year they have been shown to save the district money overall by expediting the process.

“I think it’s been a great change,” school board member Kate Darby said of the hearing officers. At a meeting Monday, the board voted 5-1 to use hearing officers for a second year in a row.

Members of the school board have complained for years about the difficulty of assembling a quorum of five members to hear teachers’ appeals.

The hearings sometimes last upward of six hours and at times resemble court proceedings, with oath-swearing, lawyers on both sides, and cross-examination of witnesses. One hearing concluded at 2 a.m.

Board members receive their standard per-meeting pay of $25 to sit in a hearing, and in some cases they miss a half day or day at their jobs. Coats said hearings were also sometimes delayed because of scheduling conflicts with teachers’ attorneys or by a teacher’s illness.

“Gathering a quorum who could do all those things ... to go through this process that isn’t very clearly defined for laymen, that created a backlog,” said school board Chair Cindy Bohn Coats.

By law, the local appeal process for South Carolina teachers who lose their contracts is supposed to be over in a matter of weeks, not months. Although appeals to higher courts can extend the process, the Teacher Employment and Dismissal Act has required for years that a local school board hold a hearing within 15 days after a teacher makes a request for one and to render its decision within 10 days after that. A state law that passed in June extended the deadline for holding a hearing to 45 days.

But in one case, the school board took more than nine months to hold a hearing after a teacher filed her request, according to court filings.

The case involved Dorothy Fields-Lary, who was a seventh-grade resource teacher at Burke Middle-High School. According to an appeal that Fields-Lary filed in a Charleston County court, the district placed her under formal evaluation for the 2012-13 school year due to unspecified “deficiencies” in her performance. After months of evaluation, she was told that her contract would not be renewed for the 2013-14 school year.

Fields-Lary wrote that she appealed the recommendation of non-renewal on April 25, 2013, but the board did not hold her hearing until Feb. 3, 2014 — and the district was required to pay her salary in the meantime. The board voted 4-1 not to renew her contract.

She appealed that decision to the S.C. Court of Appeals, where Circuit Judge J.C. Nicholson Jr. found that the district had violated state law and its own policies by blowing the hearing deadline. Nicholson also wrote that the record in the case “does not establish unfitness to teach” and ordered the district to reinstate her.

The school district appealed that decision in November 2014 but ended up dropping the appeal in March 2015. All told, the case had cost the district $135,575 in salary payments and attorney fees.

The 2015-16 school year was the first time the state allowed school boards to delegate the responsibility of teacher hearings to a hearing officer.

Skot Garrick, a spokesman for the teachers’ advocacy group S.C. Education Association, said that although other school boards had problems scheduling hearings, the proviso in state law came about specifically because of the delays in Charleston County.

School board member Michael Miller said he did not realize that teacher hearings would be one of his responsibilities when he first ran for a seat in 2012. A 2014 Post and Courier report found that Miller had only attended two of the previous five teacher hearings.

Still, once board members realized they had a costly problem with holding the hearings on time, Miller said they buckled down.

In the last two teacher hearings before the board brought on hearing officers, the board managed to render a decision within two weeks and three weeks of the teachers’ appeals, respectively.

Monday night, when the board voted to continue using hearing officers, Miller cast the only dissenting vote.

“That’s one of the responsibilities of the board, to hold these hearings,” Miller said.

Jody Stallings, a Moultrie Middle teacher and director of the Charleston Teacher Alliance, said teachers have been trying to improve the appeal process for years. He said his group proposed creating a panel of teachers who could make recommendations to the board but that district staff shot the idea down due to privacy concerns.

He said the board has made some questionable decisions at teacher hearings in the past but that ultimately the board is there to represent the people of the county.

“Teachers want to work with the district to make a fairer process, but I can say this: The process is not fair, and I don’t know that hiring out a lawyer to hear cases is going to make it fairer,” Stallings said.

Reach Paul Bowers at 843-937-5546 or twitter.com/paul_bowers.