Atlanta Public Schools may be forced to renew the contracts of 90 tenured teachers implicated in one of the nation's largest cheating scandals because of job protection rights.
According to state law, the 90 tenured educators -- of the 120 currently on paid administrative leave for being involved in the scandal -- will be given an automatic yearlong renewal of their contracts on May 15, unless the district terminates them before then, WSB-TV reports.
The district, however, cannot take administrative action to fire those teachers without sufficient evidence -- which is currently being held up in a criminal investigation by Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard. Howard is looking into felony indictments against the educators for altering state documents, lying to investigators and stealing government funds.
Howard's sluggish criminal investigation has also stalled investigations by the Georgia Professional Standards Commission, which is charged with hearing the cases of and determining sanctions against the implicated Atlanta educators. In the first sanctions imposed in Atlanta's cheating scandal, the commission decided to revoke the teaching licenses of eight teachers and three school administrators. The agency temporarily halted investigations at the district attorney's request, with the intent to resume hearing cases in January and finish hearing all cases by May.
It's unclear whether terminating teachers will be more difficult after their contracts are renewed.
"You just cannot non-renew without the evidence," APS spokesperson Keith Bromery told WSB-TV. "It's better to get this done before we automatically renew them for another year."
The investigations and pending punitive actions come from a two-year investigation released last summer that found widespread cheating among educators in at least 44 Atlanta schools.
Investigators at the time implicated 178 Atlanta educators involved in test tampering, including erasing students' incorrect answers on standardized tests and replacing them with correct ones. The findings shook the country and "stunned" U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.
The district is spending about $600,000 monthly on the teachers on leave, and the entire scandal could cost taxpayers in the neighborhood of $9 million.
APS in October sought to raise $600,000 to help tutor struggling students affected by the scandal, including students whose test scores weren't directly inflated. The district also agreed in January to repay more than $363,000 in federal money won by teachers and administrators cheating.
Even with the looming May 15 deadline, firing educators in the right-to-work state is costly and complicated. Depending on the case, firing a teacher could take anywhere from days to years.
In Georgia, teachers can be fired for "incompetency, insubordination, willful neglect of duties, immorality, encouraging students to violate the law, failure to secure and maintain necessary educational training and any other good and sufficient cause," according to state law.
"We want it done as soon and as quickly as possible with the understanding that these individuals are entitled to due process," Bromery told The Huffington Post in July.
But "due process is there to slow things down, so you can really get all the facts in any case," Michael McGonigle, counsel for the Georgia Association of Educators told HuffPost at the time.
The termination process begins with a charge letter sent to implicated educators that includes an accusation and a witness list. If the accused chooses not to resign, hearings are to proceed following a 10-day waiting period. Recommendations from the hearing go to the school board, which makes the ultimate decision at its monthly meeting. The losing party then has the option to appeal the decision to the state Board of Education -- a process that could take months.
If the losing party is still unsatisfied, the case can be taken to court, which could take another year and cost an estimated $10,000.
Borquaye A. Thomas, an attorney who is representing several of the implicated teachers, told the Atlanta Journal Constitution that the district will likely elect not to renew the contracts to avoid continued salary payments to those on paid leave. If educators win their case, they will be eligible for back pay.