Protecting Due Process for Prince George’s County Teachers

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The author is an employee of Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGCPS) who wishes to remain anonymous. The opinions expressed in this piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Prince George’s County Advocates for Better Schools.

The past few years have certainly been traumatic for Prince George’s County Public Schools.. Educators, parents, and students in PGCPS have had to weather storm after storm after storm. For most of the issues that have come across the public’s attention, there are parallels with other school districts. Yet there is one issue that in its scope is truly unique to Prince George’s County Public Schools: the placement of hundreds of its staff on administrative leave, often for months at a time, during the 2016-2017 school year.

It is difficult to find another district that had an administrative leave crisis like this one. In 2014,the Baltimore Sun reported leave statistics for some other districts in the region, with Baltimore County taking the lead at 230 employees on leave in a year at a district similar in size to PGCPS. Most recently, Providence Public School District in Rhode Island had a spike in administrative leave cases this year involving new reporting requirements. However, the district revised its policy by the middle of December, as it was quick to recognize the inherent problem in having too many teachers on leave.

In the case of Prince George’s County, a whole school year went by and local news outlets had to run several stories before district leaders would even acknowledge that there was a problem. In fact, a June 1, 2017 release from PGCPS defended the district’s handling of the situation, saying “No price is too high for a child’s well-being.”

It’s an interesting statement, considering the thousands of students whose academic well-being were harmed by the sudden departure of their highly qualified teachers, often for weeks or months at a time. Not only did the leave situation cost the district almost $10 million, it also did serious damage to the academic progress of students in all grades. Substitute teachers work hard in challenging circumstances, but they are not paid to be the full-time professionals that are expected to be there to serve the students of Prince George’s County.

There have been varying reports of the number of teachers on leave in 2016-2017.  The Washington Post reported the number to be in the range of 400 to 500 out of over 800 total employees placed on leave.  Recently, the Prince George’s County Education Association (PGCEA) has stated in its communicationsthat over 600 teachers were placed on leave that year. If we take the PGCEA figure, multiply that by five instructional hours in a day, and then multiply that figure by a ballpark estimate of 50 instructional days lost per teacher on leave, the product is 75,000 hours of lost instruction by certified teachers. The impact is then multiplied by the number of students affected. While many elementary school teachers are in self-contained classrooms, PGCPS often has students in upper elementary grades go to different teachers for different subjects, and teachers at this level often interact with 50 or more students on a daily basis. Middle and high school teachers frequently teach six classes, with their impact reaching well over a hundred students.

Put another way, imagine your neighborhood elementary school. What if you knew every single teacher in your school, along with administrators and support staff, were to be gone for multiple weeks or months? Then picture the nearest middle school and the same scenario. Finally, apply the storyline to your high school. People would be outraged. The community would be demanding an immediate policy correction. The impact on student learning would be obvious. PGCPS put enough staff on leave last year to fully staff  an elementary, a middle, and a high school, and that still doesn’t account for the full number of staff who were on leave.

Of course, that scenario didn’t happen in just three schools. Instead, this was diffused among one of the largest districts in the nation.  However, the impact would have been much the same as thousands of students across the district faced academic uncertainty. Administrative leave of public employees should be an act of last resort, and often when it happens it is newsworthy. By putting hundreds of staff on leave, PGCPS created an overwhelming situation where no individual case seemed newsworthy but collectively the cases caused a massive problem.

For many PGCPS students, the loss of instruction over such a length of time can have long-term effects. Students who lose months or weeks of quality instruction at any grade can feel the impact for years to come as they get promoted to higher grade levels without having adequate instruction to prepare them for the next level. While much has been made of the graduation rate scandal in PGCPS, the administrative leave issue can have effects on academic performance and graduation rates for years to come, very likely dwarfing the impact of the graduation rate scandal. Again, there is a diffusion effect, as the administrative leave crisis creates problems over the course of many years. Concentrated problems get noticed, but diffused problems can be more deadly.

A key point is made in the PGCEA communications. In the union’s statement on the current PGCPS board structure, the first problem cited was, “More than 600 educators placed on administrative leave in 2016-17 without due process and at the expense of stable student learning.” As we have addressed “the expense of stable student learning” earlier, let’s focus on “without due process.” Many readers may not be aware of how due process applies in this situation, so here is a little background:

The key legal basis is a Supreme Court decision in 1985 in Clevleand Board of Education v. Loudermill. Essentially, the decision in this case determined the employment of public sector employees can be considered a type of property right, and disciplinary action that may affect that right must be preceded by some sort of hearing prior to a suspension or termination that would affect the employee’s income. Before the hearing, the employee should be given an explanation of the charges against them and an explanation of the employer’s evidence. (See an example of a Loudermill letter template from another organization here.) The employee must then be afforded the opportunity to respond and present their side of the story. This process, when done correctly, should greatly reduce the amount of false positives found in employers’ investigations.  

Case law has set the standard quite low for what is required of a public employer (See McDaniels v. Flick and Duchesne v. Williams). However, we would expect our school district to uphold the highest of standards for our students and the employees that serve them, as set forth in this article.

The agency within PGCPS that is responsible for coordinating investigations and disciplinary decisions is the Employee Labor Relations Office. This office would have been overwhelmed with cases in the 2016-2017 school year. However, having a backload of cases does not absolve any agency from its legal requirements. Perhaps this is what PGCEA was getting at in their statement. If the Employee Labor Relations Office did not fulfill their Loudermill obligations in each and every case, then PGCPS has neglected its responsibilities. It is not enough to merely call something a Loudermill hearing. It must follow the guidelines set forth. It also must be based in already established PGCPS Administrative Policies. The full contents of these policies can be found here.

Further complicating matters is the Administrative Procedure dealing with administrative leave, A.P. 4156, which was revised on August 8, 2017. This procedure (as written during the 2016-2017 school year, as this section was amended for the revised version) states, “When temporary administrative leave is granted, the requesting manager will ensure that the affected employee is advised to remain at home and away from all PGCPS property and functions, until advised otherwise by the Employee and Labor Relations Office.” There are obvious logical reasons for this statement, but there is a major side effect when hundreds of staff are on leave for months at a time. There is a risk for an employee on leave in having any communication with colleagues, as that could be perceived as interfering with the investigation. However, investigative delays do not prevent others who are at the school from communicating about the events in question and altering their understandings. This provides an inherent disadvantage for the accused.

As the number of cases mounted, there would have been an incentive to make sure that the added leave proved greater finding of wrongdoing. This creates an investigative bias. If the number of leave cases increases by 600%, there should be a correlated increase in determination of guilt. Could there have been investigative error in trying to achieve this balance, whether conscious or unconscious? Certainly, that is a possibility.

Fortunately, revisions have been made and the system seems to  be working better. That makes it all water under the bridge, right? Not even close. As already shown, the 2016-2017 administrative leave situation has long-term impacts on both students and staff, and a full accounting is necessary. Recently, the graduation rate scandal led to an audit commissioned by the state Board of Education. Whether done by an outside entity or done internally and transparently, PGCPS should provide for a complete review of what happened, so remediation, where applicable, can take place. This review should be supported by all administrators, board members, legislators, and other public officials as a way for PGCPS to rebuild confidence with the public and its employees.

What would such a review look like? First and foremost, it would identify the students in PGCPS in 2016-2017 who spent a significant part of their year without a regular teacher in a critical academic subject. Those students and their families should be offered some sort of extra academic assistance if they are found to be having difficulty in later years in that critical academic subject. Not only would this be great for public relations, but it could also benefit graduation rates in the coming years.

Second, a review of each and every case should establish whether or not the employee truly received due process as required by public employees’ Loudermill rights and the district’s own administrative procedures. If due process was not granted and/or policies were not followed in an employee’s investigation and a disciplinary action was taken, that action should be reconsidered. This is not meant to let those who did do wrong off the hook, but it should serve to correct any false positives that may have been created.

As PGCPS seeks to move forward from tumultuous times, it would do well to make things right by the students and staff affected by this situation. While there are many differing opinions on how the district should be governed, surely we can all agree that acknowledging mistakes and seeking to rectify them is a value we wish to instill in our children. It’s time for the adults to lead by example and take ownership of this problem once and for all.

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