Laurel tenure case sets precedent for teachers across state

·5 min read

Jul. 27—The status of teacher tenure for Kentucky educators has been upheld by the Kentucky Supreme Court in a case stemming from Laurel County.

The case involves former South Laurel High School art teacher, Roger Smith, who was denied re-hiring on the basis that he had not established tenure. Smith sued the school system with Laurel Circuit Judge Greg Lay ruling in favor of the school district in 2020. Smith then appealed the decision, which was upheld by the Kentucky Court of Appeals.

The issue centered around the school district's claim that a "continuing service agreement" with Smith could not be established as he had broken his tenure status by only working 139 days in another school district. Under Kentucky law, teachers must work 140 days to continue their tenure status. That KRS statute was referred by the school district but Court of Appeals Judge Glenn F. Acree disagreed in the appeals hearing, stating the wrong statute had been used. Acree then reversed the Laurel Circuit Court decision.

The school system filed an appeal to that decision, which was denied by the Kentucky Supreme Court — and thereby exhausting all of the school districts' appeals.

That decision means that Smith's tenure must be re-instated and that the Laurel school district must rehire Smith. Smith declined comment on the outcome of the ruling and referred questions to his attorney. His attorney, Peter Jannace, could not be reached by press time on Tuesday afternoon.

Smith established tenure at Lincoln County Schools in 2011-2012 school year, then worked for one year for Fayette County Schools. His position there was not renewed for the next school year but he was hired by Mercer County in October to work for the remainder of the 2013-2014 school year and was employed for the next full school year. He then taught one year at Bourbon County, then one year at Clark County before coming to Laurel County for the 2017-2018 school year and remaining for the 2018-2019 year. The 2018-2019 contract with Smith was a Limited Probationary Contract of Employment (Portable Tenure Contract) in Smith's first year with Laurel County. The next year he signed a "Continuing Contract of Employment" which was to be renewed each year.

But Smith's renewal did not happen, with the school district claiming that Smith had broken his tenure by only teaching 139 days in Mercer County. That launched an argument regarding the language surrounding teacher tenure and its "portability" from one school district to another. Kentucky statutes also provide that teachers whose contracts are not renewed by their current employment site must find employment within six months — which Smith did, according to information in the case.

A tribunal before the Kentucky Board of Education upheld Smith's claim that he had tenure and the contract with the Laurel County board was legitimate and accurate. The school district then sued Smith, with the Laurel Circuit Court ruling in favor of the school district.

The Kentucky Court of Appeals, however, disagreed and upheld Smith's claim. The Laurel County school district then opposed that decision, with the case eventually presented to the Kentucky Supreme Court.

Acree wrote in his ruling:

"Both the board and the circuit court confuse the requirements for attaining tenure with what must be found to have occurred before a teacher's tenure, or continuing service status, is terminated. A school year as defined by KRS 161.720(2) is significant for purposes of determining the four years necessary to attain tenure under KRS 161.740, Section 1(b). For each of the four years necessary to achieve tenure, a teacher must accrue a year's eligibility toward a continuing service contract."

Acree then refers to KRS 161.740(1)(b) and KRS 161.720(2) before continuing:

"However, as our analysis reveals, portability of tenure status is not measured by how long the teacher works in a particular school year, but by how long the tenured teacher goes without working before employment in another district....(Smith's) continuing contract status was portable and remained enforceable after he left the initial school district, where he moved to several other districts over a number of years, but there was never more than a three-month lapse of employment."

Jannace wrote in a statement earlier this month that the case is paramount to teachers throughout Kentucky as it deals with the portability of teachers who transfer from one district to another. Historically, teachers who transfer from one school district to another are placed on a probationary status for their first year in the new district — regardless of whether they have established tenure or not. Any contracts after that are considered "continuing contracts" with the tenure remaining.

Smith's case is significant as the Supreme Court looked at the time of unemployment (months not worked after ending a contract) against the time employed (number of days worked).

Jannace practices with Branstetter, Stranch & Jennings law firm in Louisville represented Smith in the appeals.

"This has been a long journey for Mr. Smith, but he persevered in his fight for justice in this case and finally achieved it," Jannace stated. "We applaud Judge Acree's careful attention to the events surrounding this case, as well as to the legislation that makes it clear which statute is applicable to teacher tenure in the Commonwealth of Kentucky — and especially to Mr. Smith's case."

Neither Laurel County School Superintendent Dr. Doug Bennett nor Laurel County School Board Attorney Larry Bryson issued a statement regarding this decision by press time Tuesday evening.