In one Minneapolis Public Schools case, a school social worker received a buyout to leave his job after he allegedly failed to attend parent meetings, used sexually explicit language and put a child in an “inappropriate hold.”
In another Twin Cities-area district, administrators wanted to fire a teacher for making racially charged comments about students. But the best deal they could strike was to allow the teacher to work another year, then leave.
“Settling’’ with staffers who are ineffective or behaving badly is common practice for many school districts. An Aug. 3 Star Tribune news story reported that five Minnesota school districts have paid more than $2 million in salary, benefits and other payments to get rid of employees over the past two years.
The sliver of good news is that some school leaders clearly are taking action to push out ineffective or misbehaving employees who should be told to find another line of work. Education-reform advocates have argued for decades that too often the worst of the worst could count on a long career with the public schools, even if incompetence resulted in them being bounced from school to school.
The buyouts are a positive sign for students and their families that districts are stepping up to make necessary staff changes, but they come at a high cost for taxpayers. While paying someone not to work may be the less-expensive alternative than drawn-out litigation or arbitration, it still costs public dollars that could be better spent elsewhere.
Payouts are often the better option, managers say, because employment provisions in union contracts and some federal laws make firing more difficult. If that’s the barrier, districts should work on revising those rules. It doesn’t benefit administrators or union members to keep ineffective educators on the job.
That’s not to suggest that all employee protections be scrapped. Teachers and other school staff members should not be subject to arbitrary whims of supervisors or face termination because of personality clashes. But teacher tenure provisions should be fair for teachers and the districts that employ them.
There was a time when many school employees paid little or nothing toward their benefits. But that was not financially sustainable and had to change. Similarly, rising numbers of buyouts can squeeze school budgets — whether they’re used for teachers or poor-performing administrators.
The schools are not alone in this dilemma. The cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis have paid out millions of dollars in settlements to resolve employee matters that would have resulted in immediate, and less costly, terminations in the private sector.
During the two-year period analyzed by the Star Tribune, Minneapolis Public Schools paid settlements to 55 employees at a cost of more than $1.1 million. The state’s largest district, Anoka-Hennepin, paid more than $570,000 to 14 employees.
Those numbers are too high, and they suggest that the playing field is tilted in favor of employees even when their performance fails to get the job done for the stakeholders who matter most in all of this — Minnesota students.