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The Lingo

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Grievance
A formal complaint that asserts someone has treated you in a way that violates your contract, if you have a collective bargaining contract. If you don’t have collective bargaining, you often can grieve a violation of the school board’s policies or state laws. Your contract, board handbook or state law specifies the grievance procedure. Generally, the complaint goes first to your principal. If it’s not resolved to your satisfaction, you can appeal up the chain of command to the superintendent and then the school board. In non-bargaining states, the board usually has the last word, although some cases can be appealed to court. Most collectively bargained contracts provide that the union can appeal the board’s decision to an impartial arbitrator (see below).

Just cause
Most contracts and the laws of almost all states provide that a teacher who has tenure (see below) can not be fired at the whim of an administrator. There has to be a legitimate reason that affects their ability to teach. Grounds for dismissal are spelled out in the contract or law.

Tenure
The protection from arbitrary firing that a teacher gets after a certain number of years working in a district. If the problem is teaching ability, this protection usually includes the right to be notified of what you are doing wrong, and to be given help and time to correct the problem. Teachers can also be removed for misconduct and insubordination. Tenure laws do not guarantee anyone a job. They just keep people from being fired arbitrarily by specifying under what circumstances a teacher can be removed. In a growing number of districts, support professionals have similar protection after a period of time, although it may not be called “tenure.”

Probation
A period of a few years—somewhere between two and five—during which a new hire can be nonrenewed for no reason at all and without a due process hearing. That is, an administrator can say, “I don’t want you back and I won’t tell you why.” But generally, if an administrator wants to dismiss someone in mid-year, there must be a legitimate reason and an opportunity for a hearing.

Due process rights
The right to be notified of the charges against you and the right to a hearing before an unbiased decision-maker where, with the assistance of a representative, you can testify, present evidence, and cross-examine the witnesses against you. These rights are rooted in the federal Constitution.

Arbitration
A procedure for settling a grievance (or other disputes) in which an impartial, third party hears both sides and makes a decision. There must also be a procedure for choosing the arbitrator. Collectively bargained contracts usually allow the union to appeal a school board’s ruling on a grievance to an arbitrator. Where there’s no collective bargaining, the board generally has the last word—a major difference. But even in non-bargaining states, it may be possible to appeal to the courts if a law has been broken.

UniServ representative
The staff, jointly paid by the NEA and the state Association, who handle much of the Association’s business and play a central role in grievances. Most are former members.

Building or Association rep
Members who are school-level union leaders, the backbone of the NEA. If you know your building rep, go to that person first if you feel you are being mistreated. Sometimes they can resolve problems even if those problems don’t involve violations of the contract or board policies and therefore can’t be grieved. If you don’t know your building rep, contact your Uniserv rep, whom you should be able to reach through your local Association headquarters.

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