What is Special Education Law in Arizona?
Hi, I’m attorney Renee Osipov with Chelle Law in Scottsdale, Arizona. And today, I’m answering the question: what is special education law? Special education law originates in the United States constitution. There are also Supreme Court case law and federal statutes, such as section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. And depending on your state, there might also be state statutes or regulations that address special education and laws within your state. Still, this large body of law mandates that any student ages 3 to 21 with a disability benefits free and appropriate public school education. That provides special education, including any services needed to meet individual student needs. The purpose of this is to integrate students with disabilities into society and not to segregate them in any way.
School Admission Process for Learning Disabilities
At the district level, this typically looks like students can be screened or tested for certain learning disabilities. They may already have a disability diagnosed by a physician. Then within the school district, they’re provided special education or services related to their unique needs. These can be instructions in the classroom like a normal classroom. Instead of taking notes, the students receive an outline test-taking. They can have the test read to them, have extended time, or take it in a quiet area. They may be pulled out for services such as occupational therapy.
It may address special discipline concerns within an IEP or a 504 plan. So, this can get a little bit overwhelming. There are a lot of laws out there. There are IEPs. And there are 504s. What’s the difference? It can get a little confusing and overwhelming for parents. Suppose you live in the Phoenix or Scottsdale area and would like a consultation with me. In that case, I am happy to address all of your rights within special education. I was also a teacher for eight years before becoming an attorney. So, I am well versed in special education and what this looks like at the district level.
What Does an Arizona Teacher’s Employment Contract Include?
What does a teacher employment contract in Arizona include? In general, they’re normally slim. Normally, they’re only a couple of pages long. They’re bare bones. I will go over the basics and what I have seen from educators who have been my clients. First, normally your salary is outlined there. Now, salaries are not normally negotiable with districts. They’re standardized. You received an offer for a specific amount outlined in your contract. And then it will go into how do you receive that salary? Are you paid over 12 months? Or are you paid throughout the school year as a teacher in Arizona? And like, you wouldn’t receive any funds in the summer, so you’ll want to double check that. You can properly budget for those funds over the year.
Especially if you’re coming from out of state to Arizona. There’s a signing bonus or relocation expenses sometimes that the school district will pay you. It’s normally not too much. It’s around a thousand. That’s what I’ve been seeing. But if you are coming in, they may offer you a bonus. Now, if you receive that bonus, there are always some types of repercussions. If you terminate your contract, you will likely have to pay it back, sometimes with interest. So, you’ll want to read your contract very carefully. And then the contract itself will state how long it’s for, and it’s normally for the entire school year. It’ll have a start date, which would be some time normally in August if you’re in the Phoenix or valley area.
And then normally, it ends at the end of May, and it’ll have a specific date on there, and you are required to provide services within those dates. You cannot break your contract. The next thing you want to look out for is normally. The school district has some type of for-cause termination. That means they may terminate the contract if you are under investigation or lose your license with the state of Arizona. Suppose you harm a child, do something very egregious, or get convicted of a crime. In that case, they may be able to terminate the contract immediately. You’ll want to read those through very carefully.
One thing missing from teachers’ contracts is a without-cause termination. That means you may not terminate your contracts for any reason.
You must fulfill your contract for the remaining school year. And if you don’t, there are normally consequences outlined in your contract. Normally, those are called liquidated damages, which are a specific amount of money you owe to the district if you leave mid-year. Those amounts of money have different computations. Sometimes it’s a percentage of how much your salary is. You’ll have to pay that back.
Other times it’s just a specific amount, and I’ve seen even up to $10,000. So, you want to read that very carefully to know the consequences of leaving. Also included in a teacher’s contract, sometimes exceptions would allow you to terminate your contract. They’re very slim, and there’s a very narrow category of things. It’s normally if you need to take a leave of absence for your health or a family member. I’ve seen one if you move out of state, they’ll allow you to break your contract, which is kind of odd.
School District Breach the Contract
But that’s about it. Also, if the school district, however, breaches their contract. So, suppose they’re not providing services that they agree to. In that case, they’re not paying you properly, or offering things you agreed upon in your contract. You may be able to break it. But again, you want to be careful. So, we have your salary, how the district can terminate the contract, and how you can terminate the contract. Normally, it’s what services you’re going to be providing. And when I mean services, what grade are you teaching? What are you teaching? There’s normally a language in there that says that you would adhere to all the school district’s policies. That’s important. You want to ensure you’re reading all the employee handbooks and policies. I have seen this come up when it’s talking about the discipline of students.
You want to ensure you know the school’s policy on how they prefer to discipline students. Among other things, that’s just one that I’ve seen often. Also, there’s language in there that you must adhere to by the state board of education regulations. Again, it’s slim. But normally, it’s just:
- How you get paid
- How you cannot get out of it
- What you’re paid
- How the school district can get out of it
- How long you’re contracted for
Have a Full Understanding of the Contract
I always recommend reading your contract very carefully and considering the consequences if you cannot fulfill this contract before you sign it. I’ve even had clients bring me contracts that I’ve gone over with them so that they fully understand what they’re signing. This time, with educators, the friction between them, school districts, and the state board of education here in Arizona. They must understand fully what they’re signing because they’ll be contracted for the full school year. And it’s very difficult and stressful to get out of if you change your mind later.
Can an Arizona Teacher Break Their Contract Mid-Year? | Breaking Contracts
Can a teacher break their legal employment contract during the school year here in Arizona? The answer is they can, but they may open themselves up to paying damages to the school district.
Liquidated Damages Clause Could Follow a Teacher After Breaking a Contract
Some employment agreements for teachers in their school district have something called a “liquidated damages clause.” And it states that if the teacher breaks their employment agreement during the school year, they will have to pay that district thousands of dollars. These are included because if a teacher leaves mid-year, the school district is left without a teacher. So, they’re going to have to recruit, to find someone to start immediately, or if not, within a short period, they’ll have to pay the substitute for any of those costs and if they need to advertise a position. That’s kind of what covers that. You should always look first in your employment agreement to see if there is a liquidated damage clause in your employment agreement.
Laws About Arizona Teachers Unprofessional Act
Also, the teacher should know that Arizona law states that a certified teacher shall not resign after signing and returning their contract unless the governing board first approves the resignation. A teacher who resigns contrary to this section shall be deemed to commit an unprofessional act. And upon request of the governing board, shall be subject to such disciplinary action including suspension, revocation of the certificate as a state board of education deems appropriate. This means you might not only be subject to potentially paying the school district thousands of dollars. The school district can also report that teacher to the state board of education, and an investigation could be opened on their license. This is serious. And it’s something that is becoming more and more of a concern just because of the pandemic, the shortage of teachers, and their teacher’s salary is low.
In Education, 12% Involve Teachers in Breaching Contracts
And so, if you find a district willing to pay you more and maybe closer to home, I mean, there could be various reasons you would consider an offer at a different district. However, you need to make sure you do it properly by referring to your employment agreement to see if there are any sort of damages like financially that you would have to pay. And then also, you would want to be released by the school board because they can report you. It is a growing trend. The state board of education has reported that up to 12% of their current investigations involve teachers breaching their contracts.
And it’s a very serious thing. So, you want to make sure, I know I said this before, that you want to do it properly. Refer to your employment first. And then, you want to get the board’s approval. I know it’s a tough decision and a hard time for educators. Everything with COVID puts more stress on teachers. They’re understaffed, underpaid, and could be in a difficult position, and you just want to leave, but you can’t.
What Happens If I Break My Teaching Contract in Arizona?
What happens if a teacher breaks their employment contract? I’m speaking about educators K-12 in the public school setting here in Arizona. Normally, you receive your employment contract before the school year starts or before February. You’ll sign the contract, and then you’re locked in for the next school year. So, what happens after you sign it if you need to break it? If you need to break that contract, there’s normally no way out of it. There’s no without-cause termination. You must provide services for the following school year because there’s a mass exodus of educators. And there’s a lot of tension between educators and the school district.
Legal Consequences of Breaking Teacher’s Contracts
It’s very hard to break your contract without getting any consequences. The consequences I’m talking about could be at the school district level. This means that sometimes teacher employment contracts have a liquidated damage clause. If you break your agreement and leave or choose not to fulfill your contract after signing it, you may be required to pay back a portion or a percentage of your salary. Sometimes there’s a specified amount, which can even be about $10,000. Always read your employment contracts carefully to ensure those clauses aren’t there. So, one, there could be financial consequences. Two, your school board or governing board may report or file a complaint against you with the state board of education.
A teacher breaking their contract mid-year can be considered unprofessional conduct, and there may be consequences against your license. There are some exceptions. Some school districts specify that if a family member has become ill. You need to take a family leave. Sometimes, if you move out of the state, they give examples. And if you fall within one of those categories, you may be able to break your contract. If not, you are at the mercy of your school district. They must release you from your contract. Otherwise, it would be something that would be reportable to the state board of education. And therefore, there could be action against your license to teach.
Now, again, I’m speaking in general about the public school district. Sometimes charter or private schools are a little different, depending on your contract. It also depends on when you break your contract. If you sign it and they have plenty of time to fill your position or offer to stay until they fill it, sometimes that can be slightly different. It’s called mitigating damages. You’re helping the school district, so they are not out, and you’re not abandoning their classroom. There are lots of different factors and things in play. Timing is very important. Also, if the school district is breaching their contract, they’re not providing the services they agreed for you. They’re making you do things that you have not signed into. They’re not paying you. Things like that may be considered a breach of contract.
And that’s another way you may be able to end your employment with them in mid-school year. But again, these things are very fact sensitive. And there’s a lot of tension between educators and school districts. I always recommend that you advise an attorney familiar with these situations. That is to prevent yourself from having any restrictions on your license so that you can continue being an educator.
How Employment Contracts Can Be Terminated | Employment Contract Termination
In any employment contract, their whole purpose is to dictate the terms of the employment relationship. And one of the essential parts of that relationship is figuring out how the contract ends. It can end in several ways. First, generally, most employment contracts are for a fixed term. So, that could be one year, two years, or three years. And then, there may be language that states at the end of that fixed term. It automatically renews for another year, and then another year continues until terminated. That’s one way that the contract ends. The second could be for-cause.
When somebody breaches the contract, there will be a list of things for which the employer can’t terminate the employee. Suppose they’re in an industry that requires licensure, insurance, or special certifications. And then the employee loses those. The employer can terminate the agreement because they can no longer function in that job. There will also be broad language about moral turpitude, criminal activity, and convictions. So, in a scenario where a professional is in breach of contract, generally, the employer would give them notice. Then it’s called a cure or period. The employee would then have a certain period to fix whatever the problem is.
Usually, it’s between 15 to 30 days. If you lose a professional license, you won’t fix that in a month. It’s not going to happen. In that scenario, the employer can terminate the contract immediately. But if the employer is saying they’re in breach of something unfixable. Maybe they’re not working the hours they agreed to, or there’s a call that they’re refusing to take something like that that is fixable. Those are the things where the employer would give the employee written notice. Then allow them that period to cure whatever breaches. The opposite can be valid for the employee. Suppose the employer is in breach of contract. Let’s say they’re not paying the agreed-upon price. They’re not paying on the agreed schedule or miscalculating bonus compensation.
In those scenarios, the employee can do the same thing. They can give the employer written notice and say, hey, you’re in breach of contract. You’re not paying me what we agreed upon. You have 15 days to fix the problem and pay me correctly. And if you don’t, I can terminate the contract immediately. And then the last way for a contract to get terminated is without-cause termination. In most employment contracts, there will be a notice period required. You can’t just say to them, hey, I’m leaving tomorrow, and that’s it. I’m terminating the agreement tomorrow.
What Is a Notice?
There’ll be at least a notice period to allow, maybe not a smooth transition from an employee leaving the employer. It provides a little time for both parties to get things together. To wrap up relationships with patients, clients, customers, or if for the employer. It allows them to look for a replacement or provide continuity of care. Like in the healthcare industry, patients are transitioning to a new provider.
Most of the time, it will be somewhere between 30 to 90 days without-cause termination. And so, in that scenario, the employee would give written notice to the employer. The letter contains, under the contract, that I must provide 60 days written notice for without-cause termination. Here’s my notice, my last day of work will be this date. And then, that’s it. The initial term can either expire. You can terminate the contract for-cause if there’s a breach or without-cause termination. And there’s no reason. And so, if you terminate without-cause, you can do it at any time with the correct notice for any reason. You don’t need to provide a long explanation as to why you’re terminating the contract without-cause.
Keeping the Notice Simple
When I talk to people unhappy with the job, they’re like, alright, well, how do I get out of this contract? What are my options? And then it’s determined that. Just give them without-cause notice and move on. I at least think most of the time, the professional wants to explain all the reasons why they’re deciding to leave. And I think that’s a bad idea. There’s just no benefit to that. You say, here’s my notice that I’m providing, appreciate the opportunity and move on. That is an opportunity to air grievances or point out all the problems with the employer.
There’s just no upside to doing that. You’re going to cause bad feelings, and you never know when a relationship can swing back around. So, maybe under new management or something like that, the job that turned out to be not that great can be another great opportunity. And if you burned a bunch of bridges, you’re losing a potential opportunity down the road.
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