Teachers in Richmond and Columbia counties are either doing a great job or administrators are having a hard time firing those who are inefficient.
Not one tenured teacher has been fired in at least five years, records show.
School officials say some teachers resign in lieu of being fired, but Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes has said he believes teacher tenure has more to do with the lack of terminations.
Mr. Barnes' education-reform proposal to eliminate tenure for teachers hired after July 1 has caused debate in the Legislature over teacher-dismissal policies.
Teachers in Georgia are tenured after four years and cannot be fired without a hearing. Mr. Barnes says it typically costs $60,000 and two to three years to fire a teacher under the state's Fair Dismissal Act.
One teachers group last week withdrew its opposition to Mr. Barnes' proposal after he changed it to allow teachers hired after July 1 to ask for reasons in writing if their contracts are not renewed.
But the Georgia Association of Educators opposes the provision, saying some good teachers may be fired unjustly.
The proposal, part of the governor's education reform bill, passed the state House and is before the Senate Education Committee, which may vote on the bill today.
In Richmond County, more teaching assistants and other non-contract employees left the school system last year than other employees. They were the first to be fired during the past five years. Last year, 116 teachers resigned and 133 teachers' assistants left, records show. Twenty-three teachers asked to be released from their contracts, 42 teachers retired and 20 people were fired.
Personnel records of teachers who have been fired in Augusta usually indicate resignations, Richmond County schools Superintendent Charles Larke said.
"We have fired a number of teachers in the last five years," Dr. Larke said. "It won't show up when they come in and resign. It would show as a resignation.
"When you hear people say it's hard to fire teachers, it's not impossible," he said. "You spend a lot of time with hearings and it runs up legal costs, but the public should not feel that we have to tolerate teachers who do not do what they are paid to do."
Dr. Larke, though, supports teacher tenure.
"If we're not going to have tenure, we must have something in place to protect teachers," he said.
Sherri Walker quit her job last year as a Richmond County teacher's assistant because of the school system's plan to downsize the number of teacher's assistants. Now she's a teacher's assistant in Columbia County.
Mrs. Walker said she has mixed feelings about teacher tenure.
"On the one hand, I think it's a really a good thing," Mrs. Walker said. "But then if a teacher is fired over something trivial, it would be a shame. Without tenure, you give principals too much power. It opens the doors for personal conflicts to come into play between the principal and teacher."
In Columbia County, 55 public-school teachers resigned during the 1998-99 school term. Of those, 12 retired, 17 relocated, 18 left for personal reasons, one left because of health problems and six found other jobs.
Most teachers would leave if they knew their contracts wouldn't be renewed, said Tommy Price, Columbia County schools superintendent.
"Typically, teachers sign a contract every year," Mr. Price said. "Once you identify a problem, the principal in that school is under some obligation -- for a tenured teacher -- to point out the problem and give them an opportunity to correct the problem and try to be of assistance to them in correcting the problem. That takes at least a year."
Unless there is a blatant problem, teachers aren't fired, Mr. Price said. He added that tenure doesn't necessarily make it harder to terminate a low-performing teacher.
"You've got to certainly do the proper legwork and documentation," he said. "It does require the principal to have made some observations and made good records of those observations and pointed out concerns to the teacher and tried to help the teacher remediate those concerns. If you've done that, it's not that difficult.
"In this system (Columbia County), we had more teachers than we've ever had last year involved in professional growth and professional development, and that was simply to improve their skills," Mr. Price said.
The National Teacher of the Year, Andy Baumgartner, a tenured kindergarten teacher at A. Brian Merry Elementary School in Augusta, said he has stayed away from the debate on teacher tenure during his speeches to the Georgia Legislature. He said he has mixed feelings about it.
"I am not for protecting teachers who are lousy and aren't going to give kids a good education," Mr. Baumgartner said at a recent forum at Augusta State University. "But what I want to know is, where is this large group of people who are scratching and clawing to get into education to take their place?"
Tenure should not be an issue for educators who work hard, said Beverly Barnhart, principal of John S. Davidson Fine Arts Magnet School in Augusta.
"Good teachers don't have to worry about tenure as long as they have good principals with the correct evaluation process," she said. "You must follow due process anyway. We live in a society that works. And we all have those kinds of things we have to adhere to in our work. We all have supervisors and bosses, and we have to practice due process."
Reach Faith Johnson at (706) 823-3765.
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