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Kentucky Supreme Court Validates Court of Appeals Ruling on Teacher Tenure Status

Jul 14, 2022

The Kentucky Supreme Court recently denied discretionary review of a Kentucky Court of Appeals ruling concerning a teacher’s tenure status, leaving the lower court’s decision intact. The June 2022 ruling followed the Court of Appeal’s October 2021 order in favor of the teacher, Roger Smith, who was successfully represented by Branstetter, Stranch & Jennings (BS&J) attorney Peter Jannace.

The case centers around an April 2020 Laurel County (Kentucky) Circuit Court order and judgment in favor of a previous ruling by the Laurel County Board of Education that a continuing service contract between Smith and the board was unenforceable as a matter of law. Both the board and the Circuit Court asserted that Smith executed the contract “after breaking his tenure status by working only 139 days” in another county during the tenure period, citing Kentucky Revised Statutes (KRS) 161.720(2).

Court of Appeals Judge Glenn E. Acree concluded that “the circuit court based its ruling on the wrong statute. Applying the correct statute, KRS 161.740(1)(c), yields the opposite result – Smith’s tenure never terminated, and the contract remains enforceable. Therefore, we reverse the Order and Judgment and remand the case for further proceedings consistent with this Opinion.”

“This has been a long journey for Mr. Smith, but he persevered in his fight for justice in this case and finally achieved it,” Jannace said. “We applaud Judge Acree’s careful attention to the events surrounding this case, as well as to the legislation that makes it clear which statute is applicable to teacher tenure in the Commonwealth of Kentucky – and especially to Mr. Smith’s case.”

Smith established tenure with Lincoln County Schools before working one year for Fayette County Schools (2012-2013). His employment there was not renewed and he was not employed until October 2013, when he was hired by Mercer County Schools to work for the remainder of the 2013-2014 school year. He also worked for Mercer County Schools for the entire 2014-2015 school year, then taught in Bourbon County for the 2015-2016 school year, Clark County for the 2016-2017 school year and Laurel County for the 2017-2018 and 2018-2019 school years.

Prior to the beginning of Smith’s 2017-2018 school year with Laurel County Schools, a “Limited Probationary Contract of Employment (Portable Tenure Contract)” was executed. Following that school year, the parties agreed to a “Continuing Contract of Employment” for the 2018-2019 school year, which “shall be continued from year to year.” In May of 2019, however, Doug Bennett, superintendent of Laurel County Schools, wrote to Smith that his contract would not be renewed for the 2019-2020 school year.

Smith sought administrative review of the dispute in a tribunal of the Kentucky Board of Education, which determined that Smith did indeed have a continuing service contract (tenure) with the Laurel County Board of Education. The Laurel County Board then sought relief in circuit court, asserting that Smith had lost his tenured status prior to executing his contract because he “was not employed for one school year in the Mercer County Schools and did not attain the legal requirements for continuing service contract status or tenure by working in any school district for four continuous years thereafter.” The Circuit Court agreed with this argument and ruled in favor of the Board, which Smith then appealed.

“Both the Board and the circuit court confuse the requirements for attaining tenure

with what must be found to have occurred before a teacher’s tenure, or continuing service status, is terminated,” Judge Acree wrote in his ruling. “A school year as defined by KRS 161.720(2) is significant for purposes of determining the four years necessary to attain tenure under KRS 161.740(1)(b). For each of the four years necessary to achieve tenure, a teacher must ‘accrue a year’s eligibility toward a continuing service contract (KRS 161.740(1)(b); KRS 161.720(2)’.

“However, as our analysis reveals, the portability of tenure status is not measured by how long the teacher works in a particular school year, but by how long the tenured teacher goes without working before employment in another district,” Acree stated. “(Smith’s) continuing contract status was portable and remained enforceable after he left (the) initial school district, where he moved to several other districts over a number of years, but there was never more than a three-month lapse of employment.”