DeKalb school district seeks fines for teachers who abandon jobs

Dozens of teachers who signed contracts with DeKalb County schools last spring failed to show up when it came time to start their jobs, abandoning students and prompting a new punitive policy intended to discourage similar behavior next fall.

Superintendent Michael Thurmond inserted a “liquidated damages clause” in contracts that are being issued to teachers now. The new contracts require prospective employees to agree to a $750 fine should they back out after they sign the agreement.

The teachers who reneged on contracts they signed last May left the district scrambling to find replacements.

Tekshia Ward-Smith, the school system’s chief of human resources, said about 500 of the 6,800 educators who signed contracts later sought to be released. The district let some out of their agreement, but others abandoned students without permission.

About 50 teachers “simply did not show up on the first day of school,” Ward-Smith said.

She said other districts, including Fulton County, have similar sanctions built into their contracts. Spokeswoman Susan Hale said the Fulton school system’s fine is $500.

School board members queried Thurmond about the new fine during their meeting Tuesday. They noted the district’s relatively low pay — DeKalb pays thousands of dollars less per year than neighboring Atlanta Public Schools, with the gap increasing with experience. Some said the district is driving talent away.

“The decisions aren’t hard for our employees,” said Jim McMahan, who represents northeast DeKalb. He said that, after years of frozen pay, teachers are complaining: “You’re giving me no choice.”

Board member Marshall Orson, who represents north central DeKalb, said some staffers may be blindsided by the new requirement. “These are human beings trying to support their families,” he said.

School officials could pursue a more draconian punishment. It’s an ethical violation to abandon a contract, Thurmond said, and DeKalb could press the issue with the Professional Standards Commission, which certifies teachers and could temporarily remove certification for violators, depriving them of their livelihood.

Thurmond said the abandonment problem has been an ongoing one that he wants to end. He said the new clause permits a less drastic remedy by sending a clear message to employees: “If you give your word, keep it.”

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