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Teachers changing jobs in Missouri face possible suspensions and $10,000 penalties

David Medina Hernandez and Angie Quiles Rivera, both 8, work on Spanish phonetics
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
David Medina Hernandez and Angie Quiles Rivera, both 8, work on Spanish phonetics in May 2022 at Marion Elementary School in Overland.

On June 6, Missouri’s State Board of Education suspended the teaching license of a Hazelwood preschool teacher. The decision had nothing to do with her classroom competency, but with her desire to teach at a different school.

At issue was the teacher’s contract. Under a 2016 Missouri law, school districts are empowered to file charges against teachers who break their employment contracts. The process can lead to the suspension of a teacher’s license. Other school districts have used the law to impose financial penalties on teachers that range as high as $10,000. School districts are turning to this method during an ongoing shortage of educators.

Mark Jones, the communications director of the Missouri National Education Association, acknowledged that the state’s school districts are facing serious challenges in staffing. But, he argued, punishing teachers who want to leave is “a very strange motivator.”

Jones said he questions whether districts are doing more harm than good by threatening teachers with punishments to keep them on the job. “Trying to retain educators through a policy that's very draconian, where 'You work for us, or you work for nobody,’ I think is not really what educators want.’”

Earlier this month, an investigation by theSpringfield News-Leader found that Missouri school districts appear to be increasing their use of disciplinary actions against teachers who break their contracts. It found 11 contract-related suspensions since July 2022, an all-time high in that timespan. A total of 32 teachers have faced such charges since 2017.

“We're hearing that from a lot of educators that it creates a lot of stress around the time to sign a contract,” Jones noted. “‘Should I make this kind of larger commitment to a district? Or do I need to really think about my job situation and mobility?’”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is produced by Miya Norfleet, Emily Woodbury, Danny Wicentowski, Elaine Cha and Alex Heuer. Ulaa Kuziez is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr. Send questions and comments about this story to talk@stlpr.org

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Danny Wicentowski is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air."
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