It’s hard to believe, but another school year starts in Arkansas in less than three weeks. Even at this late date, some school districts are still trying to fill positions that have gone unfilled all summer. It’s this time of year when I get questions from teachers who have already signed a contract with one school district, yet have been offered a more lucrative job with another. What are the ramifications for a teacher who chooses to break a contract with one school district to work for another?
First of all, school districts are extremely reluctant to hire a teacher under contract with another district. Arkansas law provides that any public school district that employs a teacher or administrator that the district either knows or should have known was contractually obligated to another public school district is liable to that district for an amount of money equal to the teacher’s salary in the broken contract. For example, Teacher John Smith signs a contract in May to teach at School District A for $50,000 per year. In July, Smith is offered a job teaching at School District B for $60,000 per year. School District A refuses to release Smith from his contract. Smith decides to break his contract with School District A anyway and take the job at School District B. If School District B either knows, or should have known, that Smith had already signed a contract with School District A, then School District B is liable to School District A for $50,000, and the Department of Education can enforce this liability. So how do we know if School District B either knows or should have known about Smith’s contract with School District A? Well, when people apply for jobs they typically list their last employer, so that’s the first clue. In an interview, I would expect the hiring official for School District B to ask Smith why he left his last job and whether or not he had signed another contract. Teacher contracts are public knowledge and are listed on school districts’ websites, so even if Smith lies about his previous employment, a simple web search will often be all that’s needed to find Smith’s employment history. From there, I think School District B has at least some responsibility to follow up with School District A about Smith’s employment. Unless Smith is a recent college graduate with no employment history, there aren’t many scenarios where School District B can claim it shouldn’t have known about Smith’s contract with School District A.
So what if a teacher wants to break a contract with a public school district to work for a private school, or to work out-of-state, or to work for a college? This is where the answer is a bit tricky. Obviously, the law mentioned above doesn’t apply to private schools, out-of-state schools, or colleges, so those types of employers don’t really care that a teacher has already signed a contract with a public school district and are often willing to hire that teacher anyway. When a teacher breaks a contract with a school district, that teacher is in breach, and can be held liable for a breach of contract. However, the reality is that most school districts will not pursue a breach of contract lawsuit against a teacher in this situation. Lawsuits are time-consuming and expensive, and the only relief the district could pursue would be any salary payments made to the teacher prior to the breach or possibly specific performance, but that’s simply not realistic.
The most likely ramification in this situation would be a termination proceeding against the teacher. The school district would still be required to follow the procedural requirements of the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act, so the teacher would have the opportunity to present his or her reasons for breaking the contract to the district’s school board. The proceeding would still likely result in a termination, however, which would be public record and could hurt the teacher’s chances for future employment. Some school districts may simply threaten termination, but never follow through, and districts may respond differently to different teachers, depending on their circumstances. There’s always a calculated risk to breaking a contract, and I always recommend that teachers take that risk seriously before choosing to do so.