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Why administrators are easier to fire than teachers

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Posted: Tuesday, February 19, 2013 12:00 am

Recent controversy at one of our middle schools has raised the follow question: Do principals and assistant principals have the same employment rights as teachers?

Generally speaking, no.

After a probationary period, teachers have what is known as "tenure." While they can still be dismissed for various reasons, that process can be long, complicated and expensive for a school district. It can cost as much as $200,000 for the process from beginning to end, with no guarantees of success. This is why some districts may prefer to transfer unsatisfactory teachers to less harmful positions or "encourage" them to resign or retire.

But principals and assistant principals (both referred to as "principals" or "administrators" from this point) are considered part of the management team. In most districts, they serve from year-to-year or by written contract (usually superintendents only) for no more than three years at a time. An administrator may have tenure as a teacher, but not as a manager.

Among a number of reasons for dismissal are "unsatisfactory performance" and "unprofessional conduct." These encompass a broader spectrum than most teachers encounter. They might include, but are not limited to:

  • No overall "vision" for the school.
  • No plan or failure to successfully address school academic progress.
  • Failure to properly "supervise" and evaluate staff.
  • Failure to follow through with necessary administrative paperwork and procedures.
  • Poor or failed general school leadership.
  • Conflicted relationships with supervisors, parents and staff.
  • Creating or encouraging a hostile work environment.

Despite their tenuous positions, a review of the Education Code reveals that principals do have some rights. For example, they usually must be notified by March 15 if a school district plans not to rehire them for the following school year. If a district fails to give notice by that deadline, the employee must be retained for the next school year and placed at the same point on the same salary schedule, although not necessarily in the same position.

It is possible that breach of contract or constitutional issues could be involved, but these are discussions for another time.

Of course, administrators who find themselves in terminated positions should not rely on this column to make an educated and informed judgment about their specific situation. Legal advice through an independent law firm or via legal services offered by professional organizations, such the Association of California School Administrators or the National Association of Secondary School Principals, should be consulted.

When principals decide to "fight" a dismissal through an administrative hearing or civil lawsuit, they can run the risk of destroying their future as managers in another district. Often, both sides are well aware of this risk and "deals" are made. Directors of personnel may offer the choice of "no recommendation" rather than a negative one if the person in question is willing to go quietly. Some might even offer a positive recommendation, but this option was more commonly used in the past.

This does not necessarily mean that "dead wood" is being sent to someone else. It is quite common for a principal to fail in one district but fit perfectly into another, depending on personality, school culture, areas of expertise, management style, along with different goals and objectives of another system.

The argument in making dismissals of principals relatively easy, as compared to teachers, has two sides. On one hand, good people can be let go for political reasons, such as failure to get along with an incompetent supervisor. On the other hand, those who fail to do their jobs properly can destroy the entire learning climate of a school in a very short period of time.

Steve Hansen is a Lodi writer.

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