The ruling potentially upends decades of standard policy and practice regarding how school districts offer employment contracts to the state’s educators—John Tibbetts v. Worth County Schools, A22A1542 (March 14, 2023). When Worth County Schools told GAE member John Tibbetts that he did not have a contract for the 2019-2020 school year, he called GAE legal services. We’re glad he did! GAE prevailed in this case, and the Court’s analysis of educator contracts will impact school districts’ business as usual when contracts are offered to educators. The Court dug deep into the nuts and bolts of the law governing educator contracts, with insightful analysis of how contracts are offered, what is offered, and when school districts offer employment for the next school year. Specifically, the Court made several major findings:
1) The contract offer did not conform to the statutory mandates that (a) the contract “shall not contain blanks” and (b) it must state the “amount of compensation for the ensuing school year.” However, the contract as offered to Mr. Tibbetts contained a blank where the social security number was supposed to be. In addition, the “amount of compensation” referred to the current year’s salary schedule in contrast to the salary schedule for the “ensuing school year” as required by statute §20-2-211(b). Therefore,the Court found the offer was “non-conforming.” That is tantamount to declaring the offer null and void.
2) Because the contract offer was nonconforming (as if an offer was never made), the Court reasoned that the school district was then required, according to the statute, to provide Mr. Tibbetts with a written notice of non-renewal before the May 15 deadline which
they had not done. Because the required notice of nonrenewal was not provided by May 15, the contract was automatically renewed by operation of law. §20-2-211(b).
The Court rejected the school district’s argument that because Mr. Tibbetts did not accept the offer within the time frame prescribed by the district, he did not have a contract for the next school year. To the contrary, due to the nonconforming offer of employment, the school district was required to provide Mr. Tibbetts a written notice of nonrenewal by May 15, which it failed to do. There are several important takeaways from the case.
First, due to teacher shortages, school districts tender educator contracts earlier and earlier, seeking to lock in their personnel needs for the next school year. This makes things difficult for employees seeking career advancement opportunities. There are better ways to address teacher shortages and retain your teachers, such as higher pay and abolishing harmful waivers. Second, contracts are offered (e.g., February) well before the local board of education has adopted next year’s salary schedule on a take-it or leave-it basis,
no less. The Court’s decision places school districts in a difficult bind: how will an offer for next school year conform to the statute when the board has not voted to adopt next year’s salary schedule.
The case is under appeal to the Georgia Supreme Court, so stay tuned.