Photo of a dollar bill on top of a paper that has an SPS Logo
Staffers at Springfield Public Schools could face financial penalty for ending contracts early. ( Photo by Shannon Cay Bowers)

Teachers and other staff within Springfield Public Schools may soon face a financial penalty for leaving their jobs before their contracts expire. That’s if a proposal to the school board gets approved later this month.

According to proposed changes published with the April 12 school board study session agenda, administrators, professional staff and certified staff — meaning everyone from the superintendent to principals to teachers to librarians — could owe the district up to $3,000 if they request to be released from their contract before it expires.

The first read of the proposal is scheduled to take place Tuesday night. If the proposal advances to the April 26 school board meeting and is approved by the board, the policy will go into effect immediately, said John Mulford, SPS deputy superintendent. 

Mulford pointed out that the SPS school board currently reserves the right to seek monetary judgments from employees who break their contracts, and that this proposed change will address the vague nature of the current language at a time when teachers are being wooed to fill other positions in a competitive labor market. 

“What we’re trying to address is, in the labor market that we’re in, quite frankly, there’s a lot of people in other industries that are recruiting teachers,” Mulford said. “And often they can offer more pay and things like that. So knowing that a teacher leaving mid-year, or even late in the summer is bad for kids, we want to make sure our people know if you’re going to ask to break a contract, there’s going to be a penalty for that because you’re doing something that negatively impacts students.”

More teachers are asking out of their contracts

While he did not have statistics available when reached Monday afternoon, Mulford said that about 10 teachers have asked out of their contracts in the middle of this school year. 

“I can tell you this year, we’ve seen it more often than years previously,” Mulford said. 

The highest penalty that a teacher could face for breaking a contract is $3,000, which the educator would incur if a contract is broken after July 16, which is a month prior to the first professional development day of the 2022-2023 school year. (Classes begin Aug. 22.)

The proposed amended language states that the district is entitled to compensation for the contract breach in order to fund the costs of finding and training a suitable replacement “and other disruptions.” Mulford said that the $3,000 would cover roughly four to five weeks of substitute coverage if an educator’s departure throws a classroom into limbo. 

But the point of the penalty is to serve as a deterrent to prevent people from leaving late in the year at times when remaining certified staff, professional staff and administrators will be impacted by the departure, Mulford said. 

“I think the vast majority of them appreciate something that would discourage people from leaving a contract late,” Mulford said. “Because what it does is it creates a hardship on those who remain. So certainly there will be some who don’t like it. But in the end, it just goes back to, plan ahead. If you know you’re looking at exploring other options, don’t wait ‘til the last minute to do so.”

Contract language similar to other districts

The proposed language is similar to that found in other districts across the state where compensation is sought from staff who request to leave before their contracts are up.

Mulford said that he and his staff looked at neighboring school districts like Willard and Ozark as the proposed SPS language was crafted. Maplewood Richmond Heights, Hazlewood, Mehlville and Hillsboro also have “liquidated damages” clauses in their staff contracts. Like the proposed SPS language, each of those districts takes a three-tiered approach to collecting compensation from staff members, with the dollar value increasing as the next school year nears. The penalties differ from district to district.

At Maplewood Richmond Heights, employees who break their contract must pay $1,500 to do so if they break it from June 1-30, $3,000 if they do it from July 1-31 and $5,000 if they break it Aug. 1 or later. In Hillsboro, employees with contracts must pay out percentages of their salary — 3 percent from June 1-30 up to 10 percent if Aug. 1 or later — if they break the contract. 

More on SPS penalties

Like those districts, the proposed SPS penalties would increase over time, from $1,000 to $2,000 to $3,000. A tenured teacher has a binding contract with the district for the next school year if he or she does not submit a notice of resignation in writing by June 1. For certified staff, which includes teachers, librarians and counselors among them, penalties for breaking their contracts begin on June 1. On that day, only staff with probationary contracts can be penalized $1,000. From June 2 to July 15, all certified teachers can be penalized $2,000 for breaking their contracts. The penalty increases to $3,000 for those who break their contracts on June 16 or later. For administrators and professional staff, which includes positions like principals, the superintendent, and director of business services, penalties for breaking their contracts also range from $1,000 to $3,000, but the penalties begin on April 1. 

The proposed language states that the district can deduct the amount owed from a staff member in violation of his contract from the administrator’s or teacher’s paycheck. If payroll deduction does not cover the damage amount, the staff member has three months to pay back the district before the board can begin to take action for breach of contract. 

SPS board policy already includes language that offers some stipulations that the board considers — illness, a spouse moving, military service — before seeking damages from employees who break their contracts, and states that it will consider “each resignation on an individual basis.”

“When you talk about board policy, you always want to leave yourself an out for good reason,” Mulford said. “And we recognize that there will be good reasons that people need to resign. Maybe someone comes down with cancer. We obviously will not penalize someone who has a good reason for needing to resign. But leaving in July to go to the neighboring district is not a good reason.”

Penalties may not apply if staffers have ‘good reason’ to end contract

Laura Mullins, president of the Springfield National Education Association, said she trusts the SPS teachers who have valid reasons for leaving after signing a contract will not incur a penalty for doing so. There are good reasons for needing to leave after a contract is signed and a school year begins, Mullins said, citing a former coworker who went on maternity leave and did not return to her position after she learned that her newborn had special needs.

“With this group of administrators, and Dr. Mulford specifically, and (new HR director Dr. Bill) Redinger coming in, I have every confidence that they understand what that means,” Mullins said.

Mullins said that she sees the defined costs of the penalty as a positive compared to the vague language the board policy currently offers. In discussing the possibility of the breach of contract penalty with former SPS HR director Penney Rector, who retired mid-year in December to return to practicing law, Mullins said Rector told her that other districts fined teachers up to $10,000 for breaking contract.

“When I was told that some districts were charging $10,000, I feel like it’s actually a protection to have that (penalty) limited,” she said.

Mullins said that a delayed decision by a teacher to leave can have a ripple effect on others in the profession. For instance, if a teacher decides to quit after the transfer window has closed for current teachers, a position that might have been appealing to a tenured teacher would instead go to someone new to the district.

In discussing the potential policy change with Mulford, Mullins said she was concerned that teachers would get locked into their contracts only to learn that the role they anticipated having going into the new school year changed. She said it’s more common than people think that a fifth-grade teacher will find out in August that her school is in need of a first-grade teacher that year. She requested that the district tell teachers what their assignment will be next year.

“So if you need to make a staffing change, let them know to give them time to decide if that’s what’s best for them without penalty, because that happens a lot when you show up in August, and they’ve moved you to something else,” Mullins said.

An accompanying proposed amendment to the board policy addresses the concern for teachers, stating that an employee will maintain their assignment for the next school year unless otherwise notified at the time that contracts are issued in mid-April. The proposed language change goes on to state that the district “will make every effort to notify employees of the building and grade level/subject area/service delivery category of their assignment at the time teacher contracts are issued.

“It is desirable in making assignments to consider the interests and aspirations of teachers.”

Cory Matteson

Cory Matteson moved to Springfield in 2022 to join the team of Daily Citizen journalists and staff eager to launch a local news nonprofit. He returned to the Show-Me State nearly two decades after graduating from the University of Missouri-Columbia. Prior to arriving in Springfield, he worked as a reporter at the Lincoln Journal Star and Casper Star-Tribune. More by Cory Matteson