By MORGAN SMITH
Among the many ideas for reducing the state’s huge budget shortfall, one in particular is gaining traction among lawmakers examining the $35 billion the state spends on public education: eliminate the class-size cap of 22 students per teacher for kindergarten through fourth grade.
It is also the proposal generating the most anxiety in the public education community. The effect on the quality of education that pupils would receive in more-crowded classrooms is fiercely debated, but the intent is to reduce districts’ personnel costs and allow them, if needed, to eliminate teacher positions.
But it may not be that easy. Across the state, thousands of educators know their jobs are safe — they possess the “continuing contract,” which is the public education equivalent of tenure. Such contracts automatically renew and are difficult to terminate. While they are increasingly rare in union-hostile Texas, many of the most senior teachers are employed under them.
Of the state’s five largest school districts, Cypress-Fairbanks, near Houston, is the only one that offered continuing contracts last year, and almost 4,800 of the district’s 6,805 teachers have them. The school board is now considering a plan that would grandfather those teachers in but stop offering new continuing contracts to teachers.
In the Houston Independent School District, the largest in Texas, roughly 25 percent (about 3,000) of the teachers had continuing contracts as of the 2009-10 school year. Like other districts, Houston I.S.D. stopped offering the contracts in the late 1990s, said David Thompson, an education law attorney who serves as the district’s legislative counsel.
“I don’t know of a single district that in the past couple of decades has started offering continuing contracts,” Mr. Thompson said.
North East I.S.D. in San Antonio is one of a handful of districts, including Arlington and Fort Bend, that offered continuing contracts until recently. At North East, more than half of the district’s teachers, about 2,800 people, still hold them. Chyla Whitton, director of the district’s human resources department, said her district stopped offering the contracts so it would have greater flexibility in staff reductions. “As budget constraints have come, and we’ve started looking at the practices of other districts, it’s something that makes the better sense — to be able to have a renewal process every year, to have the opportunity to not have as many challenges of ending that employment,” Ms. Whitton said.
North East I.S.D., like most other districts in Texas, now employs teachers under term contracts, which usually last one to two years. To terminate a teacher employed under a term contract, a district must hold a nonrenewal hearing, a much less cumbersome process than ending a continuing contract and a requirement that lawmakers may also consider modifying to help schools cope with less money.
“If the state really does cut $4 billion to $6 billion to public ed at the very time we are adding 84,000 students a year, that is going to be pretty painful,” Mr. Thompson said. “There’s no way to minimize the impact of that.”