Hundreds of Tucson teachers have broken their contracts with little or no penalty.
While a teacher’s departure during the school year disrupts students’ learning and costs districts money, an Arizona Daily Star analysis found that less than a quarter of the nearly 600 Tucson teachers who broke their contracts between 2011 and 2015 were penalized.
Tucson-area school districts have varied approaches to ensure that teachers honor their commitments. They can levy fines or even file reports of unprofessional conduct with the state Board of Education, which could result in the loss of a teaching certificate.
In most cases, however, penalties were waived if teachers left for reasons acceptable to the districts’ governing boards.
Maintaining stability for students has become challenging at a time when schools across the state are struggling to recruit and retain teachers.
Low pay, lack of support and dwindling resources all have pushed teachers out of the classroom or discouraged people from entering the profession, said Joe Thomas, president of the Arizona Education Association, which advocates on behalf of teachers across the state.
“It’s not the fault of teachers and it’s not the fault of districts,” Thomas said. “That’s the fault of the system that does not give districts enough money to pay teachers in the first place. It causes a strain.”
In the months leading up to the school year, excitement was building in Allison Pratt’s household.
She had heard good things about her child’s teacher and was ready to kick off a new year.
But just days after the year had begun, Pratt learned the teacher had been offered a higher-paying job.
“It was devastating,” Pratt said. “I knew that she’s a great teacher so to have that taken away, it’s hard because you don’t know what you’re going to get.”
Fortunately for Pratt, she didn’t have to find out. An outpouring of support persuaded the teacher to stay.
Despite feeling relieved, Pratt remained conflicted.
“I’m a parent, I’m a person, I balance my own family’s budget,” she said. “Of course we were grateful that she was staying and that she put the needs of students above her own and her family, but I struggle with her being in that situation.
“If education was funded in Arizona the way it should be, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”
The Arizona Education Association expects to see more educators exiting the profession unless something is done to change the climate in the state. Even so, the association does not condone teachers breaking contracts, Thomas said.
Teachers are encouraged to fulfill their commitments, but when they seek to be released, the association advises them to have an honest conversation with their district and work to maintain the learning environment until a replacement can be found.
If a teacher is in a hostile work environment or if the district hasn’t kept up its end of the bargain in terms of class size or assignment, the association would work to reach a different settlement, Thomas said.
“Let’s focus on the needs of the students through all of this — that should be what guides us,” he said. “Students need a teacher who is supported, students need a class size that is appropriate for their learning, and we want to work with districts to have that type of situation.”
Egregious and abrupt departures are harder to defend. Thomas believes most teachers agree consequences are necessary, given that the impact is felt not only by students, but by a teacher’s colleagues as well.
Depending on the grade level, a teacher’s absence may be filled by colleagues who give up their planning periods to cover a class. Sometimes, students are divvied up and placed in other classrooms, making class sizes swell.
Statewide, nearly two dozen teachers were referred to the state Board of Education for breaking contracts in 2016. Only one case involved a Tucson teacher.
Harsher penalties did not necessarily lead to fewer contract breaks, the Star’s analysis found. But it did show that the Sunnyside district, which has no consequences, had the highest percentage of teachers who broke their contracts.
Laura Emslie, Sunnyside’s HR director, says the district has become firmer in holding employees to their contracts in recent years.
Over a five-year period, Sunnyside had 107 teachers break their contracts, while TUSD had 126. TUSD serves more than 47,000 students, Sunnyside about a third of that.
It’s in the best interest of students, teachers and the district to release teachers who no longer want to be in the district, Emslie said. A classroom without a permanent teacher might have negative impacts, but so would having a teacher who doesn’t really care.
“We really, truly want teachers to be here because they want to be here and not because they can’t afford to pay the $2,000 in liquidated damages,” she said.
Five of the area’s nine districts — Amphitheater, Sahuarita, Tanque Verde, Vail and TUSD — have “liquidated damages” in place, which are essentially fines for breaking a contract. Amphitheater’s Governing Board recently adopted the practice in response to teachers breaking their contracts with little notice.
Tucson’s largest school district — TUSD — has the highest penalty at $2,000, though it does not report anyone to the state for contract breaks, said human resources chief Anna Maiden.
The fine is waived for those who depart at the end of a semester, since the district then has time to find a replacement before classes resume.
“When you’re already assessing a penalty, that’s enough,” Maiden said. “People leave places for certain reasons and if in time they land back here and they have the skill set we need, I don’t want to hold too many things against them.”
All districts have wording in their policies that says teachers who break contracts could be subject to penalty under Arizona law, but Catalina Foothills is the only one to specify that it will notify the state . Other districts considered revocation of teaching licenses to be much too harsh a penalty for a broken contract.
“We think the detriment to students is pretty severe,” said Foothills Assistant Superintendent Denise Bartlett. “When teachers abandon their contract, it’s the students who lose. It’s difficult to find a substitute to go into the classroom, and typically they’re not highly qualified for the position.”
Less than two months ago, a Catalina Foothills teacher — the only Tucson-area teacher reported to the state this year — opted to surrender her license in lieu of having a complaint on her record.
According to the district, the teacher sent an email on a Sunday in February stating that she would not be returning to work.
For the most part, Catalina Foothills teachers who seek to be released from their contracts are willing to stay until a replacement can be hired, Bartlett said. In that case, they face no penalty. In the past five years, only five teachers — about 16 percent of those who have broken contracts — have been reported to the state board.
The Alliance for Excellent Education estimates that the United States spends about $2.2 billion annually on teacher turnover costs, which include hiring, training and processing a teacher through a district’s human resources system. The cost per teacher is about $12,500.
While liquidated damages help districts recoup some of those costs, TUSD’s $2,000 penalty does not cover the time and effort it takes to recruit and hire a replacement, Maiden said.
It’s difficult for individual districts to quantify the economic loss of a teacher breaking his or her contract, said John Carruth, an assistant superintendent of Vail School District, which collects $500 or $750 in liquidated damages, depending on the time of the break.
Over the past five years, 170 teachers broke their contracts with Vail, but only a quarter of those teachers had to pay the fine.
Liquidated damages aren’t necessarily collected to cover money lost by a teacher breaking his or her contract, Carruth said. Instead, they are used to offer incentives to referrals.
The primary motivation for having damages in place is to encourage teachers to think twice before breaking a teaching contract, he said. But it is not uncommon for the penalty to be waived in cases such as changes in the teacher’s family situation or health.
“We understand that those things occur,” he said.
Mark McCall, deputy associate superintendent of educator excellence at the Arizona Department of Education, said that in order to balance districts’ dire need to retain and recruit teachers and their desire to hold them to their contracts, districts should focus on creating the best-possible environment for teachers so they want to stay.
“We need to have a system of best practices in how we support teachers in wanting to stay and build up for them to be successful rather than be punitive when they leave,” he said.