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Rivera v. Dallas ISD, Dkt. No. 022-R10-01-2015 (Comm’r Educ. August 27, 2015).

Facts:  During the 2013-2014 school year, the woman was enrolled in the District’s alternative teacher certification program and worked for the District as an alternative certification teacher intern.  During the 2013-2014 school year, she had a probationary certificate from the State Board for Educator Certification (SBEC).  On July 8, 2013, she then signed a document entitled “Alternative Teacher Certification Program STATEMENT OF UNDERSTANDING, 2013-2014.” The document stated, “This Statement of Understanding does not change the at-will status of the Teacher Intern’s participation in the Alternative Certification Program.”  During the 2013-2014 school year, the woman served as a first-grade teacher at Stevens Park Elementary.  In that position, she taught more than four hours of each instructional day, and was responsible for evaluating student achievement and assigning grades.  On April 15, 2014, the District sent her a letter notifying her that “your Internship Agreement for the Alternative Certification Program will be terminated at the conclusion of the 2013-2014 school year.” The probationary certificate expired on August 26, 2014.  The woman appealed the termination to the District and then to the Commissioner of Education.  She argued that she was legally entitled to a probationary contract under the Term Contract Nonrenewal Act (“TCNA”), Texas Education Code § 21.002(a), which states, “A school district shall employ each classroom teacher…under: a probationary contract…a term contract…or a continuing contract” (collectively, “Chapter 21 contract”).   The teacher believed she met the definition of “classroom teacher” and, thus, she was entitled to a contract.

Holding:  The Commissioner granted the woman’s appeal, in part.  Under Texas Education Code § 5.001(2), a “classroom teacher” is “an educator who is employed by a school district and who, not less than an average of four hours each day, teaches in an academic instructional setting.”  According to the District, the woman’s employment agreement stated that her job was at-will.  In addition, the District argued that she was not entitled to a probationary contract under the terms of the TCNA because, as a “teacher intern” with only a probationary certificate from SBEC, she was not a “classroom teacher.” Texas Education Code § 5.001(5) requires a classroom teacher to be “a person who is required to hold a certificate issued under Subchapter B, Chapter 21.”

The Commissioner disagreed with the District.  According to the Commissioner, the case Houston v. Nelson, 147 S.W.2d 589, 593 (Tex. App.—Corpus Christi 2004, no pet.) created a “bright-line test” to determine whether a school district employee is entitled to a contract: “a teacher, for purposes of the TCNA, [must] hold a certificate issued by the State Board for Educator Certification under subchapter B [of Texas Education Code chapter 21].”  By rule, SBEC requires that “a candidate seeking certification as an educator must hold a probationary certificate while participating in an internship through an approved educator preparation program.” 19 Tex. Admin. Code §230.37. The statutory authority for SBEC’s rule comes from subchapter B, chapter 21 of the Texas Education Code, which requires SBEC to create rules that allow people to become certified in order to participate in alternative certification programs. Tex. Educ. Code §§21.041, 21.049. As a result, in this case, the woman’s probationary certificate was a certificate issued by SBEC under subchapter B, chapter 21 of the Texas Education Code. In keeping with Houston v. Nelson, she was therefore entitled to a contract under Texas Education Code § 21.002.  The District should have given the woman a probationary contract because she was “employed as a teacher by a school district for the first time” during the 2013-2014 school year.

As relief, the Commissioner ordered the District to provide the woman all resulting back pay and benefits owed under such a probationary contract in accordance with the District’s policies that had not already been paid to her.  However, because her SBEC certification had expired, the Commissioner denied her request to be reassigned to another campus.  The Commissioner held that the expiration of SBEC certification made her probationary contract voidable, not automatically void, and that the District would have to take some affirmative action under Education Code § 21.0031 to end the contract.

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