By Kelly Mae Ross

Local teachers say they’re worried a bill that would make it easier for teachers to be fired could scare new teachers away from Virginia.

Thursday, the Senate Education and Health Committee approved a bill calling for three-year contracts for teachers, principals and assistant principals. The House Education Committee passed a similar version of the bill Wednesday.

The bills still face votes by the full General Assembly. If either version passes, the teachers’ probationary period would increase from three years to five, and contracts would be up for renewal every three. The change would not affect teachers who already have continuing contracts.

First-grade teacher Janice Burguieres shows off one of her teaching tools. She opposes a bill being considered by the General Assembly. Photo by Kelly Mae Ross.

Janice Burguieres, who’s been a first grade teacher at Waddell Elementary School for 20 years, is spreading the word about the bill to her co-workers. Although the bill would not change her contract status, Burguieres said she worries about its effect on future teachers.

“Who’s going to want to go into education if the money’s not there, the respect’s not there, and more and more is expected of you with fewer and fewer benefits?” Burguieres said.

Schools do have processes in place that can be used to fire teachers with continuing contracts. But many teachers see the contracts as a promise of job security and a reward for their work.

“I think that teachers feel the continuing contract is a perk — and we don’t get many perks,” said Susan Petriella, an English teacher at Rockbridge County High School.

If passed, the bill would change the entire contract system. The House could vote on the bill as early as Monday.

Supporters of the bill said they hope it will improve the quality of teachers in Virginia schools.

“This legislation will allow school systems to remove ineffective teachers that are not performing adequately,” Del. Richard Bell (R-Staunton), who introduced the bill, said in an email.

The original version of the bill proposed annual contracts, which would be up for renewal each year.

On Jan. 23, members of the Virginia Education Association rallied in Richmond to protest the contract bill and other education-related bills being considered by the Assembly. The Virginia Education Association represents the interests of teachers in the state, but the association doesn’t have bargaining power like a union.

Wednesday, the House Education Committee approved an amended version of the bill calling for three-year contracts and extending the probationary period to five years. Thursday, the Senate committee did the same.

“We’ve been able to work with the school boards and the superintendents and make some compromises that I believe have made this legislation stronger,” Bell said.

Burguieres is a co-president of the Rockbridge-Lexington Education Association, the local chapter of the Virginia Education Association. She has been to Richmond multiple times to speak with members of the General Assembly about legislation and sit in on committee hearings.

Burguieres said she’s happy with the latest compromise but still worries about the bill’s impact.

“As an educator… my view has to be a much broader view, and I have to look at the good of the profession as a whole, and this is jut not a good thing for education as a whole,” she said.

Petriella also worries about the bill’s effect on future teachers. But she said the idea behind the bill has some merit.

“In just about any job anyone ever has you have to expect to be reviewed, to be assessed,” Petriella said. “And if you fall short, [you have] to expect [either] some sort of improvement plan or to be fired if you really fall short.”

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