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7:59 AM Wed, Sept. 26th

Broken contracts: Havoc ensues when teachers do not honor written promises to school districts, especially in this era of teacher shortages

When school districts hire teachers and staff, employees sign a contract promising they will start work on a certain date and work through to the end of the school year. If they change their minds or decide to go elsewhere, it creates havoc with the students and district alike.

Breaking a contract can be costly. Humboldt and Prescott unified school districts assess liquidated damages of $1,000. Chino Valley Unified School District charges $750.

CVUSD doesn't have many situations where this happens - maybe one a year, Superintendent Duane Howard said.

Humboldt Unified School District, on the other hand, has had six employees break their contracts since July 1, and assessed damages in three cases.

"The other three resignations were due to extenuating circumstances; each of these employees had used prior communication with the district," HUSD Superintendent Dan Streeter said.

Humboldt administrators recommend waiving damages, but the governing board makes the decision. These can include resignations based on circumstances beyond the employee's control. Advanced notice of potential conflicts heading into a new school year, for example, would allow the district to plan for contingencies, Streeter said.

Once a teacher is hired, the district starts placing students into those classes, and it stops advertising for candidates.

"Thus, when a teacher violates the terms of their contract by resigning their position, we must begin an immediate search at a time in which most highly qualified candidates have accepted other positions," he said.

Adding to that challenge is the teacher shortage crisis in Arizona. The fee helps pay for recruitment costs and substitute teachers. In some cases, districts can file a complaint against the teacher with the Arizona Department of Education (ADE).

Prescott Unified School District Superintendent Joe Howard said the district has one or two teachers who break their contracts each year. This year, the district starts the year off fully staffed with the exception of a music teacher.

CVUSD Superintendent Duane Howard said his district has maybe one teacher a year break a contract. As of the middle of June, the district had hired all its teachers.

"We were out in front of it," he said. "But we're all having to operate differently because there is a teacher shortage."

All three districts are working with ADE's certification unit to allow more flexibility, especially with the federally required "highly qualified" designation by which public schools must abide, but charter schools do not.

CVUSD's Howard is not in favor of the highly qualified certification, which requires 24 college credit hours or an advanced degree in the core content area.

"There's nothing about being 'highly qualified' that makes you a great teacher. Great teachers are great teachers. Period. I think that highly qualified has been one of the biggest barriers for putting good teachers in the classroom," he said.

PUSD's Howard said he, too, has to work creatively around the certification requirements.

"We might get a teacher who is qualified at the elementary or middle school for language arts, but we need them for high school language arts," he said. "If they are hired out of category, the question is how to help them get certified. There are tests and course work the teacher pays for. We're looking at how to be creative with that."

Streeter said vacancies remain in HUSD for one fifth-grade and two kindergarten teachers. The governing board approved hiring an additional teacher for Coyote Springs Elementary School as its two full-day kindergarten classes total 61 students; its half-day class has 26.

Lake Valley Elementary School has 33 students in its full-day kindergarten class and 21 in the half-day classroom. The board approved a half-time position for Lake Valley, and also approved a full-time fifth-grade teacher at Mountain View Elementary School. The two existing classrooms have 39 and 37 students.

These enrollment numbers exceed the recommended class size, and the addition of more teachers will reduce classroom numbers, HUSD Assistant Superintendent Jim Bogner said.

Cynthia Windham, HUSD finance director, said adding 2.5 positions will impact the budget by about $110,000, which comes out of the balance carry forward fund. Bradshaw Mountain High School teachers are spreading out the impact of vacancies in science and math courses by taking on an extra class load.