WICHITA, Kansas — Kansas teachers that don’t feel safe going back to crowded hallways as schools reopen could take medical leave or teach online. But at the many districts that don’t have those options, teachers eye another choice: quitting.
Resigning would mean more than losing steady paychecks during a recession and insurance during a pandemic. Teachers that leave now must pay their districts thousands of dollars.
Most Kansas public teachers must retire or resign early in the summer or pay their school district to find a replacement. Unless a district or a teacher says otherwise, contracts roll over into the new year.
It’s usually a routine thing. Notably, the upcoming school year looks much the same when those contracts are signed as when kids return for the fall semester.
But heading back to school seemed a lot safer before the resignation deadlines that came a few months ago. At the deadlines, the coronavirus outbreak appeared nearly under control. Some educators now say it’s unfair to charge teachers for escaping their contracts if they no longer feel safe returning to the classroom. And forcing teachers to pay now could lead to more teachers quitting eventually.
“You can claw back as much money as you want, but if you’re not careful, then what you end up with is a district with no teachers,” said Marcus Baltzell, head of communications for the Kansas National Education Association.
In May, the worst of the pandemic in Kansas seemed over. The state reported its lowest number of new coronavirus cases in two months and businesses were slowly reopening. Before the end of the month, most Kansas schools required teachers to decide if they were coming back.
Kelly Smith, a special education teacher at Leavenworth High School, felt pretty good about returning. The state still hadn’t released guidelines for what reopening schools should look like, but a task force made up of educators and health officials were working on that.
“I was absolutely confident that with all the contributors that they would come up with the absolute best plan that they could in completely unknown waters,” Smith said.
Today, coronavirus cases have climbed back up. Several counties, like Sedgwick, began ordering bars to close and reinstated gathering size limits. Some educators are now saying reopening schools safely is not possible. Gov. Laura Kelly’s plan to delay reopening schools was overturned by the state school board, making that a local decision.
Smith said she’s now terrified. She would consider quitting, but she’d have to pay her district $2,000 dollars for resigning in August. She said that doesn’t leave her much choice other than going back to work.
“For me, that’s just shy of a month’s paycheck,” Smith said. “That would hurt.”
Penalties for backing out of a contract are meant to help districts find replacements, something that’s much harder the closer it gets to the first day of classes. By then, many teachers have already accepted jobs elsewhere.
Usually, districts ask for around $2,000, depending on how late a teacher leaves. But some schools want more. Emporia Public Schools asks for $5,000 after August. The Syracuse school district near the Colorado border asks for $10,000.
Courts have upheld these clauses, but schools must prove that they’re actually based on the cost of replacing that teacher. It can’t be an arbitrary amount just meant to punish teachers. A rural district like Syracuse can argue that it’s much harder to recruit teachers, so they need more money from a teacher who’s backing out.
Despite the potential of teachers paying thousands of dollars, teachers unions often support these clauses.
Late resignations hurt other teachers who have to pick up the slack — and extra students — until a replacement can be found. That can take a while with the long-standing national teacher shortage. And without these clauses, teachers risk losing their teaching licenses for quitting too close to the start of the school year. The contracts give them a buyout option.
“Honestly, the association sees this as protection for teachers as well,” said Erica Huggard, the president of the Emporia chapter of the National Education Association.
Teachers still have plenty of questions about how their districts plan on reopening safely, like how mask requirements and daily temperature checks will be enforced.
“Teachers are planners and right now we can’t plan anything,” said Kimberly Howard, president of the United Teachers of Wichita. She said Wichita should let teachers resign without penalty.
Wichita Public Schools said retiring teachers no longer need to pay. But while the district reserves the right to waive the fee on a case-by-case basis, it generally still plans on enforcing the rule.
Other districts have a similar position. They say they’re facing plenty of uncertainty because of the pandemic, making it essential they know how many teachers they’ll have to start the school year.
“It’s one of the most important things that we deal with every year, this year in particular,” said Eryn Wright, executive director of human resources at Salina Public Schools. “Knowing how many teachers we have is fundamental.”
All the unknowns could change whether or not courts enforce the buyout clauses. Indiana University business law professor Julie Manning Magid said many of the contracts were signed nearly a year ago. So much about teaching today has changed since then that courts could decide the contracts are no longer binding.
But the coronavirus could also bolster a school district’s argument that teachers should pay even some of the highest fees. It’s easier to justify those replacement costs because it’s that much harder — and expensive — today to find someone willing to teach in a school building.
“The current pandemic situation and trying to reopen schools is a new wrinkle in a way,” Magid said, “that I’m sure these clauses have never been tested.”
Stephan Bisaha reports on education and young adult life for KMUW and the Kansas News Service. You can follow him on Twitter @stevebisaha.
The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy. Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.