Senator Shares Plans To Change Firing Laws With Teachers
Salt Lake Tribune
by Rosemary Winters
November 7, 2011
South Ogden • Utah lawmakers are no strangers to tweaking education policy. But one freshman senator is taking an uncommon approach before he introduces a bill that could reshape the way teachers are fired and paid in Utah. He is asking teachers for their advice.
On Monday, more than 100 teachers from Box Elder to Davis counties shared their frustrations, hopes and a few tears with Sen. Aaron Osmond, a South Jordan Republican. It was the first of four listening sessions Osmond has planned with teachers this week, including stops in school districts in Granite and Iron counties plus a conference call to Logan.
"If after all this feedback we find that we are pursuing the wrong path, I am willing to back away from it and pursue another one," Osmond said Monday at the Weber district office. "That’s my commitment to you."
With the backing of the State Board of Education, Osmond hopes to recast teacher employment laws to make it simpler for school districts to fire ineffective teachers.
Under current law, after three to five years in the classroom, Utah teachers may attain career status, which means they can still be fired but only after due process. Osmond wants to eliminate laws that require "orderly termination" in public schools, require that districts create their own policies to remediate or fire teachers and replace career status with five-year "at-will" contracts that districts could choose not to renew without providing cause. He also wants to add performance-based bonuses to teachers’ pay systems.
But teachers at the meeting in South Ogden expressed skepticism about his plans. Some said the new contracts would allow good teachers to be let go for arbitrary reasons, such as not appeasing parents who demand higher grades for their students. Many worried the changes could hinder districts’ ability to recruit and retain quality teachers.
"I’m afraid this kind of legislation just continues to be detrimental," said Julie Anderson, a fifth-grade teacher at Box Elder County’s Fielding Elementary. "In the  years I’ve been involved in this profession, I’ve seen it go from one to be proud of to one that’s kind of looked down upon."
Anderson said the system in place now for removing teachers works so long as principals do their jobs. She and others urged Osmond to fix what they see as a bigger problem in public education: large class sizes. Utah has the lowest per pupil spending in the nation, which means more students to every teacher.
Pete Previte, an Ogden parent, asked how Osmond’s plans would improve education for his own kids and others.
"I see a bill that you can probably get passed, but it’s not going to make a difference in the education of our kids," said Previte, who attended the meeting with his wife, a Weber High teacher. "I truly believe if we don’t have a great public school system my community is going to be worse off."
Sharon Gallagher Fishbaugh, president of the Utah Education Association, said in an interview that the teachers’ group opposes Osmond’s proposal, but she appreciates Osmond’s approach.
"We are very, very encouraged that Senator Osmond is listening not only to his constituents, but the people in the education community who will be affected by this bill," she said. "There’s a myth that teachers have a perpetual job for life — and that is absolutely not the case."
Ogden Superintendent Brad Smith, who attended an earlier meeting with Osmond for administrators, said he favors the senator’s proposals, which also coincide with a plan in Ogden district to move toward performance-based pay instead of pay based on years of experience and educational attainment. Under the current system, he said, a teacher has to receive two poor annual reviews in the past three years to begin the firing process. So it can take two or three years to fire a teacher.
"I don’t accept the idea that every teacher is equally effective and that there are no teachers in need of remediation or an opportunity to move to a new career," Smith said in an interview. "Quickening the process is good for students."
Brian Rutherford, a technology and engineering teacher at Morgan Middle School in Morgan County, wondered whether Osmond’s bill is intended to recruit or discourage people from teaching and whether it would raise or lower morale in the profession. A Canadian, he moved to Utah in 2004.
"I’m fairly new to Utah," he told Osmond during the public meeting. "But I’ve never lived in a place where I feel like the Legislature hates me every time I listen to them."
Osmond, who also told teachers he wants to run a bill to require every lawmaker to spend four days in a classroom annually, replied, "Well, I just want you to know that I love you."