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Local educators cheer ruling: Judge declares 25 percent law unconstitutional

Local school leaders and educators are celebrating last week’s court ruling declaring a 2013 law that doles out a small raise for 25 percent of the state’s teachers — no more and no less — unconstitutional. 

The selective raise of $500 a year over four years came with a catch: any teacher who took it would have to give up tenure.

“They can do stuff that’s hurtful. They can do things that aren’t productive,” Franklin High School social studies teacher John DeVille, a plaintiff in the case, said of the legislature. “They just can’t do things that aren’t constitutional.”

Jackson County Superintendent Michael Murray said he’s relieved with the ruling.

“It violated North Carolina and the United States constitutions,” Murray said. “It really does not stand up in court, and I will not put our teachers through this if we don’t have to.”

The task of picking which 25 percent of teachers would make the grade and get the raises was assigned to local school districts. It’s something they grappled with for months, complaining there was no fair way to do it.  

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“We felt it was divisive,” Murray said. 

The North Carolina Association of Educators initiated the lawsuit last year and was joined by school boards from across the state, including Jackson, and Macon school districts. At the same time, the North Carolina School Boards Association brought a similar lawsuit, which the court heard simultaneously with the NCAE suit. 

“I’m pleased that the court saw things our way, that something that was a constitutionally protected property right was indeed a constitutionally protected property right,” DeVille said. 

Following the May 16 ruling, NCAE President Rodney Ellis said in a statement that the court validated the view that “teachers should be protected from politics in the classroom.” 

“Clearly the people who are the most passionate about public education — teachers and school leaders — have been heard by the courts,” Ellis said. 

The ruling — issued in Wake County Superior Court — results in a permanent injunction against the law aimed at eliminating tenure by 2018, though it does nothing to protect tenure for teachers who have yet to earn such a status, or those who move to a different school district after having earned tenure at their current job. 

“I’m saddened that people who were in the pipeline won’t be afforded the same protections I am,” DeVille said, “and I think that won’t go our way on appeal.”

Also in the ruling, Judge Robert Hobgood halted the implementation of raises for a select 25 percent of teachers on the grounds that the law didn’t outline a clear process for doing so. 

In both Jackson and Macon counties the school districts gave up on figuring out a formula to hone in on the most deserving teachers and instead settled on a lottery.

“At the end of the day, they felt like it would be fine to do a random drawing,” Murray said. 

That random drawing was slated to happen this week. It wasn’t a task the superintendent was relishing. 

“It wasn’t an eenie-meenie-miney-mo thing to me,” Murray said. “In the end, I feel like I was being asked to do something I shouldn’t have to do.”

Haywood County School District didn’t sign on to the lawsuit. But that wasn’t because the 25 percent law made sense to the district, according to Superintendent Anne Garrett. 

“The 25 percent, it’s bad for morale,” she said. “I’ve always had difficulty with this.”

Haywood was still wading through the process of selecting its 25 percent when Judge Hobgood ruled the law unconstitutional. 

“We still have not selected those names and presented them to the board,” Garrett said, although the school system had spent months developing a complex, multi-tiered formula to rank which teachers would get the 25 percent.

The system had actually been adopted from the military, according to Haywood Schools Human Resource Director Jason Heinz. 

Administration was pouring over past teacher review rankings — focusing on rankings given in the categories of “leadership” and “methods of learning” — and using those rankings to base the 25 percent selection. 

“We hadn’t actually developed our list yet, because this lawsuit came out,” Heinz said. “We were expecting this would happen. Or, hoping it would.”

But the ruling could still change, because both the state and the schools are planning to appeal the decision.

“[Senate Majority Leader] Phil Berger immediately indicated that he would be [requesting] the state to appeal, and I know that we have every plan to appeal as well in regards to the pipeline,” DeVille said, referencing the part of the ruling that would allow tenure to disappear for teachers who don’t already have that status. 

Anne McColl, general counsel for the NCAE, confirmed that the association will be appealing the pipeline aspect of the ruling. But she’s hoping the state thinks better of its potential appeal.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if they appeal, but we felt very strongly about the strength of our case — that it’s a solid case — and though we would prefer not to spend the time and money on an appeal, we’ll do what it takes,” McColl said.

— Reporter Holly Kays contributed to this story.

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