Either by choice or necessity, school districts often hire teachers who were previously employed by other Minnesota school districts, hoping to gain from the knowledge and skills they learned during their other teaching experience.
When an experienced teacher is hired, the hiring school district needs to accurately determine the length of the newly-hired teacher’s probationary period. If it doesn’t do so, the hiring district risks inadvertently granting a teacher continuing contract status by failing to recognize whether the teacher has a one- or three-year probationary period.
Fortunately, a recent Minnesota Court of Appeals decision has clarified a question on which there was some confusion:
Is a teacher who completes three consecutive years of teaching in a single Minnesota school district—but who does not attain continuing contract status—entitled to a one-year or three-year probationary period in each subsequent school district?
In January 2018, the Minnesota Court of Appeals answered that question in its decision in Long v. Independent School District No. 332, a decision that considered two similar fact situations from two different school districts.
In the first case, Shannon Long had been a licensed teacher in Minnesota since 2008, having taught in the East Central School District for three consecutive years. At the end of her third year, the district nonrenewed her contract. She later was hired by the Mora School District, where she taught for another three consecutive years until it decided not to renew Ms. Long’s contract for a fourth year. The Board determined that, even though Ms. Long previously had served three consecutive years in the East Central School District, because she had not attained continuing contract status, she had a three-year, not one-year, probationary period with Mora and therefore could be nonrenewed following her completion of three years of teaching.
In the second case, Laurie Erickson, a licensed teacher since 1993, taught in the Forest Lake School District for three consecutive years, after which her contract was nonrenewed. She later was hired by and taught for three consecutive years in the Centennial School District. The District decided to nonrenew Ms. Erickson’s teaching contract following completion of her third probationary contract year and, just as the Mora School District had done with Ms. Long, reasoned that the teacher’s contract could be nonrenewed because she had not previously obtained a continuing contract after having completed three consecutive years with Forest Lake.
Both teachers challenged their employer’s decision, arguing that, as stated in Minn. Stat. § 122A.40, subd. 5(a), completion of the “first three consecutive years” in a single Minnesota school district entitles a teacher to a one-year probationary period at a subsequent teaching job in a Minnesota school district (that is not in a city of the first class).
In response, the school districts argued that Minn. Stat. § 122A.40 was ambiguous because it does not define how the initial three-year probationary period ends and because the language of subdivision 7 of § 122A.40 suggests that only teachers who complete three consecutive years at a Minnesota school district and then successfully attain continuing contract rights at that school district are entitled to a one-year probationary period in a subsequent Minnesota school district.
The court rejected the arguments of the school districts and ruled that Minn. Stat. § 122A.40, subdivision 5, is unambiguous, is not limited by subdivision 7, and means what it says:
“The first three consecutive years of a teacher’s first teaching experience in Minnesota in a single district is deemed to be a probationary period of employment, and, the probationary period in each district in which the teacher is thereafter employed shall be one year.”
Consequently, because teachers Long and Erickson had indisputably each completed three consecutive years teaching in a single Minnesota school district, “they were entitled to one-year probationary periods” in their subsequent school districts. And because the districts did not nonrenew their teaching contracts after their first year of teaching, each of the teachers had obtained a continuing contract and the court therefore ruled their contracts had been “improperly terminated” by their employing school districts.
This article is intended to provide general information with commentary. It should not be relied on as legal advice. If required, legal advice regarding this topic should be obtained from district legal counsel.
Greg Madsen is an attorney and shareholder at Kennedy & Graven, Chartered, who practices education and employment law, and is certified by the Minnesota State Bar Association as a Labor and Employment Law Specialist. For more information, please contact him at (612) 337-9305 or www.kennedy-graven.com.
© Gregory S. Madsen (2018). Used by permission.