Teton County School District counselors and other specialists say “cleaning up language” in their contracts has them worried about their job security.

The key term is “tenure.” Who gets tenure and who doesn’t might change next year because of how the state and the district define who is a teacher.

In Wyoming teachers can earn tenure in their fourth year. But professionals who work outside classrooms might lose the “teacher” title and the rights of tenure because of the state.

“In the past,” District Superintendent Gillian Chapman said, “the district has recognized certain individuals who are non-teachers and allowed them to earn tenure. Unfortunately, I think it’s a nice gesture, but from the advice we’ve been given from legal counsel the state doesn’t recognize it.”

Tenure is valued by employees, though Chapman said it’s not as valuable as they think.

“What that means is they are awarded certain protections,” Chapman said. “In the case of a termination, for example, they could request a hearing and a hearing officer to hear any case. It’s really a procedural protection. That’s pretty much it.”

Chapman said that while district staff was creating the 2017-18 employee compensation package, “we discovered that the state of Wyoming in case law from 2009 defines teacher as a classroom teacher.”

“That case law from 2009 states that counselors are not teachers,” she said.

Counselors within the district disagree with the interpretation.

Psychologist for 14 years

Jennifer Watson Kilgrow, the district’s first certified school psychologist, with 14 years in the district, wrote a letter to the school board saying that the recommendation “came as a complete shock to many of the individuals (if not all) who will be affected by this decision.”

“Tenure is an extremely important benefit for many educators, something that they value and consider protection against unfair evaluation practices (among other things),” she wrote. “We are all teachers, and we all deserve the same benefits.”

There are 24 positions — counselors, psychologists, nurses, occupational and speech therapists, and social workers — who would be affected by the change in classification. These “professionally certified staff” are those who do not hold the title of teacher and who don’t assign grades on a daily basis.

But as employees who have a certification from the Professional Teaching Standards Board those employees have been able to earn tenure in the past.

“As PTSB-certified school counselors, we work with the most at-risk population: the kids teachers don’t know what to do with and parents aren’t sure how to handle,” another group of seven counselors wrote to the school board. “The kids that cry, shut down, lash out, hide in bathrooms, skip school, bully others, are in trouble at school and familiar with the legal and court system.”

The group of seven counselors wrote that “counseling students is both an art and a science.”

Jackson Hole High School counselors Tavi Brandenburg and Emily Hoffer also wrote to the board.

“While our classroom is nontraditional, we are educators, certified by PTSB with school endorsements, and request to be considered equally to our professional peers within our community,” they wrote.

Breach of contract?

Watson pointed out that since she and others signed a contract with the belief they were eligible for tenure, taking it away might be a breach of contract.

“A continuing contract represents a sense of security for educators, historically encouraging the development and discussion of thoughts and ideas not necessarily popular among a community,” Brandenburg and Hoffer wrote. “As student advocates, it is often counselors and psychologists who represent the less popular perspective.”

Asked if current counselors and others who had reached tenure in the past would retain that status, Chapman said, “It’s not for us to give away in the first place.”

Chapman said that while she understood employees “don’t like it,” the switch “is not a substantial change at all.”

“Some people are worried that we are just going to fire them,” she said. “We’re not going to do that. There are no plans to fire anybody. Truly, this was about cleaning up the language in our compensation package on how these individuals were being paid.”

Chapman also said that worries of a future reduction of positions or of being terminated for dealing with sensitive situations are unfounded.

“We will continue, however, to treat our employees as the professionals that they are,” she said.

Certified staff who aren’t teachers have voiced their concerns to principals and to the superintendent. But Chapman wasn’t sure if that feedback would change the current course of action and the district’s recommendation to the board to change the compensation package.

“We will not be able to offer new employees in that category tenure,” Chapman said. “We can’t offer something the state doesn’t allow. I’m fairly confident on that.”

The school board will vote on the compensation package today. The meeting begins at 6 p.m. at 1235 Gregory Lane.

Contact Kylie Mohr at 732-7079, schools@jhnewsandguide.com or @JHNGschools.

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