The issue of tenure and teacher pay is the subject of a lawsuit filed by the Laurel County School District earlier this month against the Kentucky Department of Education.

The lawsuit centers around former South Laurel High School teacher, Roger Smith. Smith was hired as a Spanish teacher at the southern county high school for the 2017-2018 school year. He had previously been employed at Lincoln County schools for 16 years, then at Fayette, Mercer, Bourbon and Clark County schools since 2012.

Background employment checks indicated that Smith had attained "tenure" during his career, which is termed "continuing contract." However, it was then learned that Smith had only worked for the Mercer County school district from October 8, 2013 to the remainder of the school year. That time was counted as 139 days, while the tenured staff must complete 140 days.

"Both Bourbon County Schools and George Rogers Clark schools reflected on their "Certification of Teacher Experience and Contract Status" that the Defendant Smith had a "Continuing" contract status at the time he left his employment in those districts; this is not true," the lawsuit states.

Because of the belief that Smith was a tenured teacher, the Laurel County school district offered Smith the position and pay from that information, which the lawsuits states as "erroneous." After that discovery was made, Bennett then notified SLHS staff and Smith that his contract for the 2019-2020 school year would not be renewed. That notification was allegedly dated May 1, 2019.

Smith then requested a tribunal hearing, with James L. Dickinson assigned as the hearing officer. The Laurel County School District then filed a motion to dismiss the hearing since Smith was not a tenured employee and therefore did not meet the standards as a "continuing service status" in Laurel County. On June 18, that motion was denied by Dickinson.

"The Hearing Officer was in error in finding that the Hearing Officer did not have jurisdiction to grant the District's motion while at the same time setting aside the District's non-renewal letter of May 1, 2019 and ordering reinstatement of Smith to his teaching position pending resolution of this dispute on appeal," the lawsuit states. "The Hearing Officer's decision in the underlying Administrative Hearing Final Order of June 8, 2019 states that if a teacher does not work for at least 140 days, that period of time cannot be counted as a school year for the purpose of establishing tenure."

It also notes under Kentucky law (KRS 161.740(1)(b) that when a teacher is rehired after four consecutive years in the same district or after teaching four years that fall within a six-year period in the same district, the superintendent can offer a continuing contract status. According to the lawsuit, penned by Laurel County School Board attorney Larry Bryson, Smith lost his tenured status from moving to different schools during that time frame.

Dickinson issued a ruling in the hearing that Smith had to be rehired under the original terms of the contract with Laurel County school system, which the lawsuit appeals by asking for a speedier hearing date, to reverse the Hearing Officer's decision and order him to set aside the order that Smith must be rehired in Laurel County. It also requests that the Laurel County school district not be required to rehire Smith under those conditions as a tenured teacher.

The lawsuit was filed in Laurel Circuit Court on July 17 and names Smith, Dickinson as the Hearing Officer and Dr. Wayne Lewis Jr. as Commissioner of Education for the Kentucky Department of Education as the defendant/appellee.

A lawsuit represents only the claims of one party against another. It does not imply guilt or innocence of any party listed in the complaint.

njohnson@sentinel-echo.com

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