Counterpoint

The Star Tribune's editorial calling for changes in the state teacher tenure law ("A hitch in the Teacher Tenure Act," March 16) sounded like it may have been written by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and his cohorts.

The editorial told only half of the story, and got that part wrong. As the attorney for the prevailing principal, I feel obliged to correct those mistaken impressions.

The editorial discussed a Minnesota Court of Appeals ruling last month that the superintendent of the St. Paul School District violated the law when she transferred Patricia Murphy, a highly regarded veteran principal at Arlington High School, which closed last year, to a lesser position of assistant principal at a different school.

The law, which covers principals, too, prohibits a school district from demoting a tenured educator without some form of prior notice and a hearing, to give the educator an opportunity to address the proposed demotion before it goes into effect.

The court ruled against the superintendent because she consciously and deliberately bypassed the notice and hearing requirement for no apparent reason, stripping Murphy of significant job responsibilities that she carried out well for many years.

The editorial opined, as did the school district in the lawsuit, that the reassignment was a mere trifle because Murphy retained her same salary.

Indeed, the association of school boards is trying to get the Legislature to adopt the same position the court rejected: that a demotion does not occur as long as the educator's salary remains the same.

The law currently defines a "demotion," which triggers a right for a notice and hearing, to consist of a "reduction in rank," defined as a diminution of duties or a decrease in compensation. Both occurred in this particular case.

The principal's duties were changed from overseeing a facility and its staff to more menial duties, including lunchroom supervision.

The offense in this case was not merely a matter of modifying a "title," as the editorial suggested, but a major reduction of the educator's role that could affect her if seeking a job elsewhere as well as promotional opportunities internally.

Although Murphy's weekly salary was unchanged as an assistant principal, she was put on a lower pay scale, with reduced eligibility for bonuses and longevity increases. Thus, she suffered an adverse economic impact, in addition to diminution of her stature.

The editorial's repeated emphasis on the need for "flexibility" on the part of school administrators, especially in times of budget-cutting and building closures, has some merit.

But abiding by the notice and hearing requirements of the current law does not necessarily impinge on that prerogative.

The statute merely requires that prior to diminishing the responsibilities or compensation of a tenured educator, a school district must have some legitimate and reasonable reason and be able to articulate it in a hearing in which the educator has an opportunity to present her side.

Rather than "flexibility," the underlying motive for Murphy's demotion may have been folly. In a related case, she is claiming that her demotion was attributable to her marital status because of concern that she may need to take time off to care for her husband, who has an affliction.

That issue is yet to be resolved.

Meanwhile, the Tenure Act, as interpreted by the court in the Murphy case, constitutes an important tool for teachers and other educators to fend off arbitrary actions by administrators that may be bad, baseless, or both.

The Legislature should decline the overture, advanced by school board administrators and advocated by the editorial, to start down the slippery slope, as Wisconsin has done, of taking away important rights and protections of educators and other public-sector employees.

Marshall H. Tanick is a Minneapolis attorney.

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