Why Due Process is Vitally Important to the Teaching Profession

86488331More than 30 years ago, when Leota Coats was in her seventh year of teaching in Wellington, Kansas, she flunked a star football player before a big game, despite pressure from the administration to change the grade. Coats stood her ground, but her resolve made her a target.  The administration soon followed though and handed her a non-renewal notice. Coats’ decision to fight the dismissal set in motion a three-year legal challenge that went all the way to the Kansas Supreme Court and her eventual reinstatement in 1983. Her case helped define due process rights for teachers across the state – until 2014 when Kansas Governor Sam Brownback signed into law a school financing bill that abolished these protections.

Now retired but still very active politically, Coats recounts her experience fighting her unfair dismissal and explains why due process – so important to teachers and their students – is a right every educator must fight to protect.


In April, 1980, I was in my seventh year as a language arts teacher and department chair at Wellington High School (WHS) in Wellington, Kansas.  I was also five months pregnant with my second child.  One day during my third hour class, the principal walked in and dropped a sealed envelope on my desk without so much as a word about its contents.  I was not prepared for the news in the envelope; it was my nonrenewal notice supposedly because of reduction-in-force.  As I read it, I felt my world had ended, or at least some really bad mistake had been made.

I was known as a fair teacher with high expectations for my students.  I expected them to do their work, do their best and behave themselves.  Occasionally I’d rock the boat when I turned in my list for student athlete eligibility.  That fall, I’d caused a ruckus because one of the star football players was ineligible to play in a crucial game because of his grades in my class.  I was pressured to change the grade so he could play, but I couldn’t justify doing so. I was there to teach, not enable dishonesty.  I became a target for non-renewal.

After meeting with Ernie Jimison, local president of the Kansas National Education Association and South Central UniServ Director Dave Kirkbride, my husband and I were ready to fight. As events soon unfolded, however, I became aware of the tenuous status of a crusader.  Few of my building colleagues wanted me to fight the nonrenewal – it would rock the boat, and “things” might get unpleasant.  Their lack of support hurt deeply and revealed how deep-seated was their fear of drawing attention to the capricious injustice of the school board.  Nasty little things happened, like notes left in my box saying I’d never teach in again Kansas and rumors spread that I was blacklisted.

In June, the due process panel gathered but not without turmoil.  At that time, due process began with a hearing before an impartial three-person board. The structure of the board was thus: the administration chose a member of the board, the teacher chose the second person, and those two would choose the third person.  The board appointed its own attorney as their “impartial” panel member.  The District Court was asked to appoint the third panel member who was supposed to serve as chair of the panel.  The judge appointed the husband of his secretary, a local farmer.  The appointee was, as time went on, obviously out of his element.  He later told my husband and me that he looked up the word tenure in a dictionary, and it didn’t have anything to do with teaching so he voted against us.

The hearing lasted two days, but it seemed like an eternity.  Our darkest hours came when the panel found two to one against us.   We immediately appealed the decision of the due process panel to the District Court.

To be clear, our lawsuit did not focus on the athletic turmoil.  That just made me the administration’s obvious choice for non-renewal.  Basically we took two issues to litigation:  whether a tenured teacher could be non-renewed over a non-tenured teacher whose position the tenured teacher was qualified to fill; and whether the board’s appointment of its own attorney as a member of the impartial hearing panel was correct.

My case gathered dust in District Court, dampening my spirits. The waiting was extremely trying.  I frayed nerves all around me:  my own, my family’s, Dave’s, and my KNEA sponsored attorney, Lee Kinch.  It seemed to me that part of the punishment of nonrenewal was in the torture of waiting and waiting.

But in 1982, the court found in our favor and ordered my reinstatement at WHS.  We tempered our excitement with the fairly sure knowledge that the decision would be appealed, as it was to the Court of Appeals.  More waiting seemed like adding insult to injury.

Just as it seemed as though nothing was ever going to be resolved, the wheels of justice got a little shove.  The Kansas Supreme Court agreed to take our case, citing its “novel relevance to labor law” and the certainty that whichever side won in the Court of Appeals, it would be appealed to them.

Win or lose, the case of Coats vs. USD #353 would be far reaching for years to come.   If we lost – we shuddered to think of that outcome.  If we won, tenure for teachers would actually mean something.

In January 1983, the Kansas Supreme Court heard arguments in Coats v. USD #353. We left the court feeling hopeful but cautious.  The justices weren’t known to favor educational causes, especially teachers’ rights.

But in April 1983, the Court voted unanimously in our favor on all counts, a unanimous decision that put legal teeth in the battle for teachers’ rights.

We rocked the boat, but the result was a safer ride for all of us, all 23,003 of us who make up the Kansas NEA.

But now, 31 years later, it’s all changed, thanks to the Kansas legislature and Governor Brownback.  The Governor and his legislative cohorts signed away our due process rights and we are now targets once again for capricious, arbitrary and irrational administrations and school boards.

For all these decades, due process has worked well.  Contrary to our opponents’ assertions, due process does not protect bad teachers.  Administrators who won’t do their jobs protect bad teachers.  Due process gives good teachers the opportunity to teach even when the occasional administration or school board acts irrationally.

And now without due process protection, that specter looms large.  Any number of scenarios haunt us: a principal may have a sister-in-law who wants your job.  You’re out.  You may have a difference of opinion about a school board member’s child.  You’re out.  You may have a losing basketball team.  You’re gone.  You may disagree with the administration about a policy.  You’re gone.  Or a principal may just not like you.  These nightmares could go on and on.

Tenure gave Kansas a stable corps of qualified educators.  Now, there may be wholesale turnover throughout the state.

Educators across Kansas are going to fight back. We will organize a statewide campaign to change the legislature and the governor’s mansion.  Elections have consequences.  And we can get back our due process rights, working together.

Adapted from a a speech delivered at the KNEA South Central Uniserv banquet, May 2014

  • James

    After reading this article, I just couldn’t help but have to share my own story. I am a recent victim of unfair tenure charges in NJ. I have been ousted over fictitious accusations conjured by a few students at a middle school, which I was recently transferred to after returning from a medical leave of absence. Both my former principal and current principal plotted a way to remove me by basically questioning everyone I taught and worked with for over the past 11 years in the district, mind you I have been a successful teacher for over 14 years with an unblemished track record. The students basically admitted on the stand that they collaborated to inform the new principal of verbal accusations I allegedly had made in class and clearly expressed their displeasure over their interim reports as their justification for their actions. In fact one student informed the administration that the other students were plotting to retaliate over this and then changed his story once he saw the other students actually carried out their plan. The case was stretched out for over 2 years and a “Super Lawyer,” as cited in Newsweek, with over 40 years of experience, represented the board while the NJEA provided me with a relatively new lawyer with a few years experience. I contracted a separate law firm to file harassment charges, which ran into thousands of dollars at my own expense. I have written to countless senators, congressmen, the governor and even the president, explaining how this entire case was fabricated and politically based with no tangible evidence. All of this was to no avail as my letters were typically ignored or in some case a brief response saying, “We don’t handle this sort of thing.” Which leads me to ask, “If we cannot rely on our elected government officials to represent us and address the issues at hand, then how is this a democracy? Where is my due process?” Now almost three years later, as I am still unemployed no thanks in part to a fraudulent and malicious press release last year, I had to drop my lawsuit as I received absolutely no support from my local or uniserv and when requested to change my NJEA appointed lawyer, they refused. In fact they even refused to appeal the Commissioner’s decision. Furthermore, the judge was also connected to the principal who brought the charges as the two were chatting off the record in the courtroom about the parties they attended together and plans for the upcoming summer at the time. So in short, my entire career has been abolished over all verbal false accusations that a savvy law firm used to convince a corrupt judge to affirm all while the NJEA did next to nothing to fight for my due process rights!

  • Jeffrey Smith

    Why is nothing said about the fact that administrators who are willing to do the job they were hired to do are the true core of the problem here. Every principal and school administrator has very clear procedures for disciplining and ultimately dismissing below standard teachers. THEY DON”T DO IT. And the NEA and teachers’ unions need to start pointing the finger in that direction. Anybody with an ounce of intelligence is fully aware that this is just one more attempt by the Koch brothers to use the judges, lawyers, and the political party they own to weaken our unions. Bad teachers exist, no question about it. But if they thrive, the blame goes to school administration failure, not tenure.

  • Jared Towler

    How did the Koch brothers get in here. I expect reasonable and civil discourse at a teachers’ site. This is a serious issue and it needs reasonable people to argue it. The writer is correct: teachers are not the reason we have very few bad teachers, nor are bad tenure laws. Bad administrators are to blame for keeping bad teachers or not even knowing they exist.

  • CT

    The mention of the Koch brothers must be included in a reasonable and civil discourse at at teachers’ site. They are responsible for funding the campaigns of elected officials including Governor Brownback whose agenda is to dismantle public education beginning with the repeal of tenure. Why do you suppose tenure which has worked wonderfully for decades is suddenly being attacked across the country? It is on the agenda of the Koch brothers with their millions.

  • Scott

    In my twenty years as an educator I’ve watched good teachers lose their jobs for holding students accountable to their behavior, by grading fairly and according to the curriculum guidelines, by crossing the wrong parent in a community, by disagreeing with administration, by adhering to district/state standards, and by following the Code of Conduct as adopted by the school board. I’ve found it’s more difficult in smaller districts where everyone knows everyone, than in larger districts where there’s a bit more due process. Being a teacher is the most fulfilling job I’ve ever held and I’ve been lucky enough to have a positive impact on many students over the years. However, considering the changes and challenges that have come to this profession over the last decade I can no longer encourage my students to follow this as a career choice. Lack of due process, political agendas from school boards, over-emphasis of standardized testing, the loss of arts education, and the idea that schools are more day-care than educational institutions has left me saddened at what was once a proud profession.

  • lynne hewes

    I first met Leota Coats when, several years ago, I began teaching at Belle Plaine High School, the school she went to after leaving Wellington High School. I can testify that she is an excellent teacher who presents solid, relevant, and interesting lessons; she has high expectations for her students, and they rise to the level of her expectations. During her career, she has had an incredibly positive impact on her students and her colleagues. I am proud to tell people I know the “Coats” in Coats vs. USD 353. I regret that Governor Brownback has, with the stroke of his pen, erased progress made in Leota’s hard-fought case.

  • newteacher123

    No due process?! WHAT?! I guess I shouldn’t be surprised at the erosion of our rights. But seriously, any teacher who walks into a classroom without protection of due process, should think twice. Perhaps if NO TEACHERS SHOWED UP FOR THE START OF SCHOOL, they’d get the message!
    I quit my teaching job after being assaulted by a student. The school supposedly hold a expulsion hearing for the student, which they did not invite me to attend. Student was back in school in a few days, though the police are charging him with felony assault. I was told i just needed to watch out for him in the hallway!

    I have also been told to change students’ grades and allow students who cheated to do ‘make -up’ work without them being disciplined for cheating. Pathetic! We are enabling behavior that’s not acceptable.

  • My dad was a teacher at a small high school in Kansas. He taught mechanical drawing, architectural drawing and woodworking. He did the same thing. He flunked a star football player because he wouldn’t do his work, and grades were failing. The superintendant came to him and asked him to change the grade. My dad refused. He caught lots of flack for that – but it eventually died down. Everyone knew my dad was a Christian man and had high principals. He was never questioned again. That was about 50 years ago.

  • I worked with Leota at Southeast High School in Cherokee, KS and to say she is (was) an excellent teacher would be an understatement. She let her students know from the very beginning that she had high expectations and expected them to be met. With that being said, I think many teachers have had administrators tell them to change the grade of a student because their dad/mom was a school board member, or they were good athletes, or some other inane reason. It takes teachers like Leota to stand up to these kinds of demands. I have always thought that bad teachers means there are bad administrators who are not during their job. Without tenure all teachers are at the mercy of an administrator and as most educators know that on any given day of a school year they may upset someone. Hopefully, tenure is not a thing of the past.

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