Charter Schools Assn. seminar, ‘how to avoid employee lawsuits’ (LA Weekly. May 2014).

On May 8, the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools along with the Top Shelf charter assistance organization hosted a presentation for charter school leaders and board members on how to avoid employee lawsuits, especially when terminating a charter school teacher.

While New Orleans has seemingly benefited slightly from a shift from public to charter schools, one side effect has been “union busting,” which leaves individual teachers who feel they have been wronged to fight alone against the concentrated power of charter boards and the corporations they represent. While Wednesday’s presentation was billed as a gathering “to promote healthy relationships with charter school personnel,” it often felt more like a discussion about ways in which charter boards can further deplete the individual power of teachers who feel they have been wrongfully terminated.

Unlike traditional public schools, corporate charters each make their own rules. For instance, most charter schools can fire employees at will. “We can fire anyone for any reason, with or without notice,” said attorney Michelle Craig of Adams and Reese who led the presentation, “for good reason, for no reason. It’s your business decision.”

To that end, Craig repeatedly suggested that charter board members and school staff document anything and everything, in case of future lawsuit. On the other hand, Craig also suggested that charter schools do away with the traditional “Employment Contract” entirely, because said contract can serve as documentation that might aid a teacher in winning a wrongful termination suit. “Leave out the words ‘contract’ and ‘agreement,’” advised Craig, who suggested instead a brief, ‘offer letter,’ that makes no promises and gives teachers as little information as possible.

Craig said that when firing a teacher, “Never argue or apologize.” In fact, she suggested that administrators say as little as possible: “Body language says a lot,” she said, smiling.

Craig also said that schools should not offer an appeals process to fired employees because, “if offered, everyone will use it.” Craig also reminded everyone present that when faced with any controversial situation, “You don’t have to give the state documentation. I am not suggesting you don’t. But you don’t have to.”

Craig went on to discuss what to include in the employee handbook; gave advice on schools’ application processes; talked about how to deal with teacher background checks; and described how to block any teacher fired during the year who then feels entitled to their summer pay.

While the 20 or so in attendance soaked in the info, Craig received a bit of blowback when she suggested that schools should no longer write letters of recommendation for former teachers, just in case that could later be used against the school somehow: “That’s an attorney’s route,” said Patty Glaser, CEO and founding head of school for Kenner Discover Health Sciences Academy. “I don’t agree with that.”

“Lawyers have ruined everything,” said Colin Brooks, board President of the Algiers Charter Schools Association, who sighed, adding, “This was depressing.”

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