Missouri teachers prepare to file lawsuit against department of education

Thursday, June 24, 2010 | 6:10 p.m. CDT; updated 11:58 a.m. CDT, Friday, June 25, 2010

COLUMBIA — A group of public school teachers in Missouri is preparing a class action lawsuit after budget cuts forced a University of Missouri System program to cut their positions.

Three teachers from Columbia and two from Mexico are among the 45 who were fired from the Missouri Virtual Instruction Program, or MoVIP, three months into their one-year teaching contracts. MoVIP is an online education program created by the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to provide academic credit to students who have special needs that prevent them from attending traditional schools.

Attorney David Brown of the Brown Law Office in Columbia represents 15 of the teachers seeking reparations, including the five from Columbia and Mexico. He said the lawsuit could cost the state department and the UM program called Enhancing Missouri's Instructional Networked Teaching Strategies, or eMINTS, $900,000 combined.

Beth Lower of Mexico is among the teachers who were fired and is a potential plaintiff in the lawsuit.

"I'm seeking restitution,” Lower said. “Restitution for the job I gave up, for the job I lost, for the tenure I lost and for the benefits I lost.”

UM became involved in the program when it entered a contract with the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. UM agreed to staff MoVIP through eMINTS, which then began hiring new teachers. It signed 45 teachers to new contracts for the 2009-10 school year.UM fired the 45 teachers in October 2009 after the state eliminated funding for MoVIP.

Barbara Powers-Peck of Columbia also was among the fired teachers and is prepared to join the lawsuit. She said in a news release that the state appeared to be committed to MoVIP, but that the new teachers were fired three months into their contracts.

Brown cites e-mails obtained through a Missouri Sunshine Law request that suggest MoVIP was aware of severe budget constraints that eventually would force the program to cancel several classes and cut back its staff. Brown, however, said none of that information was made known to the new teachers, several of whom had left tenured positions and salaries to join.

Lower decided to leave her 18-year position at Mexico Middle School when she jumped on board with MoVIP.

“I wouldn’t have left a position of that many years and that salary if I didn’t think I would stay in that new position,” she said.

Lower began teaching through MoVIP in August 2009 and was notified in October that the program — and her job — would be eliminated.

“We had no notice, no clue that there was any possibility of the program not continuing," she said. “There was no help finding new employment. There was ‘good luck,’ but that doesn’t put money in the bank.”

Several teachers are still trying to find work. Lower said she will start teaching at the advanced technology center in Mexico in August,but it will be only a part-time position.

“Teaching is my passion,” she said, “and it’s what I wanted to do all my life. This has been devastating to all of us.”

Kelly Mescher, an attorney for the UM system, said there was no breach of contract when the new hires were let go.

“The teachers were in a probationary period, and the funding for the program was cut before that period was over,” she said.

Brown, however, doesn’t buy that excuse. He said the new teachers were told that there would be at least one year of funding, and there was no way they could lose their jobs in the first year.

But overseers of the program knew that wasn't true, Brown said. “They were already laying people off and shutting the program down."

Curt Fuchs, director of virtual education at MoVIP, was unaware of the pending lawsuit. He said cuts in state funding last year to the program caused a "disaster" that resulted in the firings. The program, which used to be free, is now primarily self-funded through tuition fees and is no longer affiliated with UM.

Brown said he sent letters to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and to UM seeking settlement talks. The state agency didn't respond; UM was apologetic and said it needed time to investigate.

Brown said he plans to move forward with the lawsuit against the state education department but will give UM another week to respond to his request for a negotiated settlement.

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