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Judge rules in favor of teachers sued by St. Louis school district

Judge rules in favor of teachers sued by St. Louis school district

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ST. LOUIS • A circuit judge ruled Friday that teachers who resigned from St. Louis Public Schools early do not have to pay damages to the district for doing so because their contracts were not enforceable in the first place.

Judge Jason Sengheiser ruled in favor of four former St. Louis teachers who were sued by the district in July for quitting their contracts early. The district sued them and 28 other teachers for leaving their contracts, which said the teachers must pay $3,000 plus interest if they resign before the end of their contracts.

Sengheiser said in his judgments that the district’s contracts were unenforceable because the district’s Special Administrative Board, which represents the district, did not sign them. Only the teachers signed the contracts.

Sengheiser also said the contracts lacked “essential elements” that every contract of a public body must have, including the teachers’ salaries. Sengheiser cited a 1988 Missouri Court of Appeals case, Klotz v. Savannah R-III School District, which requires that “the essential terms of a public contract be fixed when the contract is entered into and that the terms not be left to be determined at some future time.”

The district’s contracts did not list any salary amount and said the St. Louis Board of Education would determine the salary later, Sengheiser said.

“We are so pleased the court ruled in favor of our members,” said Sally Topping, president of the American Federation of Teachers Local 420 union, in a statement Saturday. The union provided a lawyer to sued teachers who are former union members.

“We hope the district will now look for ways to support our teachers, rather than ways to punish them,” Topping added.

In 2015, the school district began requiring teachers to pay $3,000 plus interest for leaving the district early. It’s an uncommon but not unheard of practice for public schools with high teacher resignation rates to collect a sum from teachers who leave before the end of the school year.

Districts such as St. Louis Public say they use that money to replace teachers who leave, but experts say it can also be used as a deterrent to keep teachers from leaving during the school year.

Teacher resignations have been a thorn in the side of the St. Louis district, which saw 247 resignations last school year and 334 the year before. School officials and teachers have acknowledged that it is often more difficult to teach in urban classrooms in St. Louis, where many students come to school dealing with trauma and toxic stress.

Several teachers who resigned and were sued by the district said they left because of a lack of support from administrators.

While Sengheiser ruled in favor of four teachers Friday — all of whom were represented by a lawyer, Emily Perez, provided by AFT Local 420 — 10 other teachers had already been given court judgments that forced them to pay some or all of the $3,000 plus interest. Many of those judgments were handed down in August, and those teachers did not have lawyers.

Fifteen other teachers’ cases are still in court, and three have been dismissed.

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Kristen Taketa is the K-12 education reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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