Five teachers sat on one side of the Kanawha County school board room Friday about to have the fate of their jobs determined by a game of chance — for the third time in two days.
No matter what their résumés said, or how much they loved their jobs or their students, the teacher who pulled a slip with a “6” on it out of a clear plastic cube would have his or her position taken by a teacher with more seniority.
The longer-tenured teacher’s position at George Washington High School is being eliminated next school year, and the district was required to create a vacancy for the instructor to move into. The five were on the chopping block because they were all in their first year teaching in Kanawha County schools. They were all hired on the same day and all held positions that the more-senior teacher was certified to work in.
Carol Hamric, human resources director for the district, said state law mandates that counties use the “tiebreakers” — instead of reviewing résumés or other merit-based means — to choose which less-tenured teachers lose their jobs. She said the local school board technically has to approve the personnel changes resulting from tiebreakers, but the board members are constrained by the state law laying out the process.
She said in her decade with Kanawha schools, the district has always been able to find the teachers removed from their positions by tiebreakers other jobs in the county before the start of the next school year — though not always at the same schools.
But there was only supposed to be one tiebreaker for these teachers.
Due to errors by Hamric’s office, they had to go through the stressful lottery three times.
“I agree it got botched up,” Hamric said. She said the employees involved had been disciplined, but declined to give their names or describe their punishments.
On Friday, Seth Ramsey, a physical education and health teacher at Nitro High School, and Cody Peters, a health teacher at Riverside High School, sat silently in the room in the district’s headquarters on Charleston’s East End.
Julia Conley, an art teacher at Sissonville High School, joked around to make the best of a sad situation. She told the Gazette she has more than two decades of teaching experience, but the district was only counting her less than one year in Kanawha schools.
Then, Justin Wilcox, an Elkview Middle School health teacher, chimed in to say he’d served four years in the Marines.
“Everybody looks for advantage in their own ways,” he said with a laugh.
Brian Burn, a physical education teacher at Sissonville High, appeared agitated.
“I don’t feel like I’m in control of my career,” the 30-year-old said. He said he was frustrated the district could put a “random person” in a position he worked hard for.
At different times, eight teachers were contacted to come to the lottery that could potentially cost them their jobs, but not all of them were actually supposed to have been called.
Scott Canada, a physical education and health teacher at South Charleston Middle School, sat with the others Friday for his first drawing. Even though Canada lacked seniority like the rest, the district had failed to summon him to the office on Thursday, when the others drew their slips for the first time.
Another teacher, Cody Clay, had been there on Thursday. But the six present on Thursday only appeared to pull five pieces of paper at that first drawing. Human resources employees with the school district say they counted six slips multiple times before the drawing.
“I think somebody got two stuck together, and nobody fessed up to it,” Hamric said.
Regardless, a human resources employee then cut up six new slips in front of the teachers and had them draw again on Thursday. But then, someone realized Canada was absent.
“That’s when I just went off like a rocket,” said Jerry Throckmorton, the American Federation of Teachers representative for Sissonville High, who observed Thursday’s drawing in support of the teachers involved.
“I was like, first of all, this is an undignified process in the first place,” Throckmorton said. “And secondly, look at what you put these people through.”
The district had overlooked Canada and had contacted another employee who wasn’t supposed to be involved. That teacher was told he didn’t have to attend Thursday’s drawing only after he informed the district he had more tenure than it first realized.
And by the time the third attempt at the drawing took place — it was delayed until Friday afternoon so Canada could be there — Clay had persuaded the district to exempt him because, according to humans resources staff member Tom Hudson, he only taught physical education part time at Capital High School and thus his position wouldn’t fit the full-time job opening that needed to be created.
So the drawing was redone Friday — minus Clay, plus Canada — but the questions weren’t over about who should or shouldn’t be there.
“I’m happy for anybody that can weasel out of this pain,” Conley said before the drawing began. But as a human resources employee began to explain the rules to the teachers, she interjected to ask why Clay wasn’t there.
Hudson also faced questions from Throckmorton, who was again on hand to observe.
“What’s the legality of that, just because he’s in a half-time position?” Throckmorton said. He said he needed more explanation from Hudson in case he needs to pursue a “legal recourse” or grievance in the future.
He said earlier in his career, he once lost two teaching positions within 30 seconds in tiebreakers drawn from a coffee cup.
In the tense back-and-forth, Wilcox said the whole tiebreaker process unfairly benefited the more senior teacher who would take the newly open job.
“Why is her right to work more important than our right to work?” he asked. “Why does she have to bump one of us? We bid for our job, we inquired for our job, we interviewed for our job, we were accepted by the school, and the school that we’re working at, for that position.”
He also complained about the prior drawings, saying that if someone drew a six today who didn’t draw sixes the other two times, he or she would feel cheated.
Jennifer Sanney-Iams, a social studies teacher at Nitro High in the room Friday for a separate drawing, said it seemed like teachers were “hired on merit, but let go according to chance.”
Eventually the questions faded into silence, as the teachers each picked out a slip and signed their names on a sheet. As they put on their jackets to leave, some patted the back of Peters — who drew the 6.
He said afterward that he didn’t want to discuss the issue.
Hamric said she took full responsibility for the problems, but also seemed exasperated at times. When a reporter asked for the names of her employees who erred, she said she didn’t want them in the paper, and asked the reporter if he’d reveal whoever told him about the tiebreaker incident.
“Who?” the reporter replied.
“The snitch?” she said.
Hamric said she’s called the principals of the schools involved and apologized.
“It’s a very emotional situation when this happens.”
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