More 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