Missouri teachers who quit their jobs on short notice face increasingly severe consequences, as school districts facing staffing shortages impose financial penalties as high as $10,000 or seek to suspend the teaching licenses of teachers who break their contracts.
The number of teachers who have faced contract-related suspensions jumped during the pandemic and hit a record high of 11 in the past year.
On Tuesday, three of the 11 cases will go before the State Board of Education, which has final say on whether a license is suspended or not.
The circumstances varied but in each of the three cases, a teacher submitted a resignation after the contract deadline, the school board voted to reject the resignation and the district initiated action to suspend the teacher's license. Hearings were held in each case.
At the Tuesday meeting, the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education will recommend a one-year suspension in two cases — involving teachers in Hazelwood and Independence — but no action for a teacher who quit her job in the Hancock Place district, located in St. Louis.
Mark Jones, communications director of the Missouri National Education Association, described districts going after teaching certificates as a "heavy-handed approach."
"It works against incentivizing people to become educators and staying educators — particularly for new educators who are not on tenure and are being asked to make these (contract) decisions in January or February," Jones said. "Six, seven months later, their lives may be very different, whether they just discover this is not the right situation for them or they, like many of us, have had a sudden life-changing event."
Jones said going after a license is counterproductive at a time when many districts are struggling to find and keep enough qualified teachers.
"This does not incentivize them to try and find a new school or situation that is a better fit for them when they can basically lose their livelihood because months after signing a contract they realize maybe they need to make a different decision or work in a different setting," he said.
"This is creating a very strange system ... and something that works against everything that we state our values are, which is trying to keep people in the profession and respect them as educators."
Under a state statute revised in 2016, a district may "file charges seeking the discipline of a holder of a certificate of license to teach" for annulling a written contract.
Records obtained by the News-Leader showed such charges have been filed against 32 teachers, starting with two each in 2017 and 2018.
There were 10 in 2019, six in 2020, none in 2021, and one in the first part of 2022. Since July 1, there have been 11.
Of the cases filed in 2022 and 2023, one was dismissed by the district and hearings were held in two cases but they have not yet gone before the state board. The rest have gone before the state board or will Tuesday.
Springfield is not among the districts that have pursued this option, though it does assess financial penalties of up to $3,000 against staff who leave early.
'You could be out someone for six months'
Kelli Hopkins, associate executive director at the Missouri School Boards' Association, said districts can seek the help of the Missouri Attorney General to revoke or suspend the license of a teacher in serious situations, such as violating a critical policy or committing a crime.
However, the AG's office does not help districts seeking to suspend a license for breach of contract. "That puts the expense on the district. They have to present the case."
Hopkins said that likely limits the number of cases that are filed. "With smaller districts, they don't have the people to do that, to put in the kind of time it would take."
In Missouri, a growing number of school boards have adopted policies to allow "liquidated damages" clauses to be added to teaching contracts.
The clause allows districts to impose a financial penalty against employees who violate or break a contract either by resigning after the deadline or walking off the job.
It is meant to be a "fair estimate" of the damages the district will incur by losing an employee, including the cost to find a replacement.
"You don't know what the true damages would be," said Hopkins, who oversees policy and legal matters for MSBA. "You could be out someone for six months or two days."
Hopkins said the penalty typically increases closer to the start of a school year, or during the year, when it is harder to fill an open job.
She said many districts have had the clause in board policy for years, whether it was used or not. "It is my sense that because of the shortage of teachers, more districts are enforcing 'liquidated damages' clauses."
No single entity appears to be tracking how often the contract-breaking penalties are imposed. But the teacher and school board groups contacted by the News-Leader indicated it has been on the rise since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
'We have seen those numbers climb'
Kyle Farmer, senior staff attorney at the Missouri State Teachers Association, said a financial penalty of $500 used to be fairly common for breaking a contract. Many are now in the $1,500 to $3,000 range.
"Those amounts have definitely grown in the past two to three years, since the pandemic," he said. "We have seen those numbers climb pretty much everywhere."
He said many districts used a tiered-approach, with higher amounts imposed for resignations just before or after the start of a school year.
In Springfield, the school board adopted a policy regarding penalties for the "late release from a contract" in April 2022.
The penalty has been applied 36 times so far, including 27 times for contracts during the 2022-23 school year and nine for the 2023-24 year.
Of those, four involved administrators, 23 were nontenured teachers, seven were tenured teachers and two were other employees.
The district uses a tiered approach that starts at $1,000 and goes to $3,000 depending on when the contract release is sought.
Farmer said Blue Springs, near Kansas City, used to be the only district with a $10,000 "liquidated damages" clause in teacher contracts.
"Now we have seen that in a handful of districts, where it is $10,000 to get out," he said.
He said such contract clauses are legal but there are limits under state statute. Namely, the penalty cannot be used as a punishment.
"They are supposed to be an estimation of the cost to replace that teacher," he said.
"There is no teacher in the state of Missouri who would cost $10,000 to replace. That is ludicrous. It is absolutely being used as a punishment. It is being used as a deterrent and not really what 'liquidated damages' clauses are supposed to be about."
Farmer said teachers rarely balk at paying the penalty for breaking a contract if the amount is reasonable.
"They are willing to pay $1,000 to move onto somewhere else, whether it is another job somewhere in education or outside," he said. "But we have also seen more instances where that number is $5,000 and the teacher just says 'There is no way.' No. 1, they don't have it. How many of us have $5,000 just sitting around to pay to get out of our jobs. And even if they do, they've been much less willing to pay."
He said exiting teachers facing higher penalty amounts sometimes leave without paying. "They are willing to risk the consequences."
Districts can deduct the penalty amount from remaining paychecks or take an employee to court.
'Districts are taking a much harder line'
Jones, of Missouri NEA, said districts impose the penalties in different ways but there was more leeway in the past to find compromises.
"If someone felt they really just couldn't honor their contract and they had to change situations, we would often help them negotiate with the district so the full force of those damages would not come down on them," said Jones, noting districts have discretion.
He said it was not unusual for the penalty to be waived or reduced if an employee wasn't a good fit or needed to move on for a viable reason.
"We definitely think the teacher shortage is exacerbating these kind of cases and more importantly districts are taking a much harder line," he said.
Todd Fuller, director of marketing and communications for MSTA, said while many exiting teachers may fight the penalty and license suspension, it is alarming how many do not.
"We have members call us in December or January and say 'I am leaving the classroom' and in the past there have been district administrators that have said 'I am going after their certification or they are going to have to pay a penalty' and those teachers have said 'I don't care because I don't ever plan on teaching again,'" Fuller said.
"That should be concerning for all of us that there are that many individuals willing to leave the profession and not be concerned about it. They are leaving something they are passionate about but don't care if they ever do it again because they've found that the working conditions, the environment, isn't conducive to teaching."
Three cases up for state review
A synopsis of the three contract-related license suspension cases going before the state Board of Education this week follows. Details came directly from the meeting agenda, which included transcripts of the hearings, the findings of hearing officers and exhibits including resignation letters, contracts, and applicable state statutes.
The state board meeting starts at 9 a.m. Tuesday.
Asueleni Deloney, a tenured preschool teacher at Jana Elementary in Hazelwood, resigned Aug. 30, four months after signing a contract.
She worked as a teacher for eight years after stints as a teaching assistant and substitute, and said she wanted to be paid more. She alleged she was not being paid at her pay scale.
Deloney was informed she would not be released from her contract until a suitable replacement was found. The board refused to accept the resignation. The district remains without a teacher to replace Deloney.
DESE recommended suspending her license for one year.
Jordan York, a tenured English teacher, signed a contract in March 2022 to teach in the Independence district during the 2022-23 year. She was to report Aug. 16.
On Aug, 2, she asked to be released from her contract "for family matters" and was told she must pay a penalty fee but she did not. The board did not accept her resignation. She did not show up to work or communicate with the district and was terminated.
DESE recommended suspending her license for one year.
In June 2022, Veronica Delgado was issued a contract to teach Spanish at the middle and high school in Hancock Place, a district in St, Louis, for the 2022-23 year.
In mid-September, she notified the district of her plans to resign, saying she was overwhelmed, struggled to engage with students and felt it was a hostile work environment because she was threatened by the students. Several specific incidents were detailed.
She reported the student behavior concerns to administration. She said she did not feel safe.
Delgado said she experienced severe anxiety, had trouble eating and sleeping, and cried on her way home from school. She also broke down in the classroom.
She did not leave the district for another job but has worked as a substitute in the Clayton district since resigning from Hancock Place.
The board did not accept her resignation.
DESE recommended not taking action against her license.
Claudette Riley covers education for the News-Leader. Email tips and story ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared on Springfield News-Leader: More MO districts going after licenses of teachers who break contracts