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Background on the recent dismissal of a SCPS teacher

Amy Hall over at Stafford Growing Pains has done some research to help parents understand exactly why teacher Rebecca Whitford was recently dismissed from SCPS. Below, Amy discusses the state statutes and codes that drove the School Board's decision. This post is reprinted here with Amy's permission.

If you have a child in Stafford County Public Schools (and even if you don’t) you have probably heard about the School Board’s most recent decision to dismiss a veteran teacher for SOL violations. You probably got most of your info from Facebook or maybe from one of the local newspapers. And, you are probably wondering whether or not you’ve gotten the whole story. I wondered the same thing so I did some research. Here’s what I’ve learned.

What exactly happened?

According to the School Board’s decision, which was read at the special called SB Meeting on October 24 (watch the video here), a teacher at Conway Elementary sent a group text to all of the other teachers in her grade level at Conway. The text message was sent on Saturday, May 24, 2017, five days before the third graders at Conway were scheduled to take the math SOL. The text said,

“Comparing, adding and subtracting fractions using fraction models, money word problems. Count the money. Subtract the price. How much change? Elapsed time, probability word problems, lots of graphs. This is from a little birdie about the Math SOL.”

On Tuesday, May 30, the next business day after receiving the text, one of the recipients reported the text to an administrator at Conway. Proper notifications were made and a Virginia Dept. of Education staff member instructed Stafford County to conduct an investigation. All investigative notes, written statements, and copies of the text message were provided to VDOE. On June 7, VDOE issued a determination that the teacher’s actions had violated multiple items on the Test Security Agreement.

Is this really serious enough to fire the teacher and revoke her teaching license?

You have to start with the Code of Virginia – the law of the land, so to speak. Most folks are focusing on §22.1-19.1 and §22.1-292.1 which list the types of violations and the penalties for the infractions. These sections are important because they are referenced in the first item on the School Division Personnel Test Security Agreement that each teacher must sign. Specifically, the agreement states,

“I have read the legislation passed by the Virginia General Assembly (§ 22.1-19.1 Action for violations of test security procedures and § 22.1-292.1 Violation of test security procedures: revocation of license)…”

These sections are only a part of the story, though. Let’s try to answer some other FAQs.

Why did Superintendent Benson petition for the teacher’s dismissal and license revocation?

For this answer we need to look at §22.1-298.1(B). This is the section of the Code of Virginia that details how violations that may affect teacher licensure must be handled. It says,

“The Board of Education shall prescribe, by regulation, the requirements for the licensure of teachers and other school personnel required to hold a license. Such regulations shall include requirements for the denial, suspension, cancellation, revocation, and reinstatement of licensure and procedures for the immediate and thorough investigation by the division superintendent or his designee of any complaint alleging that a license holder has engaged in conduct that may form the basis for the revocation of his license. At a minimum, such procedures for investigations contained in such regulations shall require (i) the division superintendent to petition for the revocation of the license upon completing such investigation and finding that there is reasonable cause to believe that the license holder has engaged in conduct that forms the basis for revocation of a license; (ii) the school board to proceed to a hearing on such petition for revocation within 90 days of the mailing of a copy of the petition to the license holder, unless the license holder requests the cancellation of his license in accordance with Board regulations; (iii) the school board to provide a copy of the investigative file and such petition for revocation to the Superintendent of Public Instruction at the time that the hearing is scheduled. “ (highlighting added)

To unwrap all this legal language, I think there are 3 key points:

  1. Whenever the word “shall” is used in legal language it means “must.” There is no wiggle room when the word “shall” is used.

  2. Item (i) requires the division superintendent to petition for license revocation. It does not give Dr. Benson the option to request license suspension. In this case, the Virginia Dept. of Education determined that SOL testing violations had occurred. That determination served as “reasonable cause.” Dr. Benson did what was required of him by the Code of Virginia. If Dr. Benson had chosen to proceed in any other way the Conway’s accreditation and the teaching licenses of the teachers who received the text could have been in jeopardy. (Petersburg Decision)

  3. Item (ii) requires the School Board to hold a hearing. They did that. And, they also have or will comply shortly with requirement (iii) to provide the entire investigative file to authorities in Richmond.

Why did the School Board vote to fire the teacher?

For this answer we need to look at §22.1-313. It talks about the School Board’s authority.

Paragraph (A) says, “The school board shall retain its exclusive final authority over matters concerning employment and supervision of its personnel, including dismissals and suspensions.” This paragraph explains why Dr. Benson could not fire the teacher on his own. The School Board had to agree that there were grounds for her dismissal. In its decision, the SB found that “the teacher’s conduct violated Virginia Code §22.1-292.1, the School Division Personnel Test Security Agreement, and the SB’s expectations as set forth in the adopted SCPS Strategic Plan.” (Note that this paragraph references suspensions from work not suspensions of a person’s teaching license.)

Why is it okay for only four members of the School Board to decide to fire the teacher?

Again in §22.1-313, Paragraph (D) says “A teacher may be dismissed or suspended by a majority of a quorum of the school board.”

Some folks have complained that the teacher didn’t get a fair hearing because only four members of the SB voted. Even if all SB members had participated, the four “aye” votes would have constituted a majority of the seven-member school board and the teacher would have still been dismissed. Additionally, the teacher waived her right through counsel to have a full panel before the hearing began. (September 27, 2017 SB Meeting/Hearing Minutes)

Why didn’t Dr. Benson care enough to attend the special called meeting on October 24 when the School Board made its final decision?

Paragraph (E) in §22.1-313 is really long but the key part of it says, “….the superintendent shall be excluded from any executive session of the school board which has as its purpose reaching a decision on a grievance.” There has been a lot of talk about the fact that Dr. Benson arrived late to the meeting on October 24 and did not participate in the discussion about this case. This paragraph makes it clear that he was legally excluded from any such discussion and decision and was not exhibiting any callousness nor disdain for the teacher, the process, or the County’s educators.

Why did the School Board recommend suspending the teacher’s license for one year?

Let’s look back at §22.1-292.1. This section gives the Virginia Board of Education the responsibility to revoke or suspend a teacher’s license. The Stafford School Board has no authority whatsoever to suspend or revoke the license; it can only make a recommendation. In this case, the SB was faced with two realities: Dr. Benson had been required by law to recommend revocation and the VBOE was likely to either suspend or revoke the teacher’s license because the VDOE, a partner agency, had initially adjudicated the issue and declared it a violation. The SB chose to recommend a one-year suspension to acknowledge the teacher’s long career as a teacher and her strong performance evaluations. The VBOE will consider the investigative file and the School Board’s recommendation and will make the final decision about the teacher’s license.

My Conclusion?

The teacher made a really lousy decision. Superintendent Benson did what he was required to by law, not because he is out to get teachers. The School Board showed as much mercy for the teacher as they could and actually tried to help her out. And, everyone lost something in the aftermath.

Your Conclusion?

Only you can decide, but I hope this information was helpful. If you have additional questions, please comment. I’ll do my best to find the answers.

You can read more of Amy's writing at her excellent FB page Stafford Growing Pains.