Take a close look at your dual assignment contracts….

The school district reduced Mr. Alaniz’s overall compensation when it reduced his supplemental non-teaching duties. The district thought this was OK, since the salary for teaching remained the same. But Commissioner Morath thought otherwise, and concluded that the district had improperly reduced an educator’s salary after the penalty-free resignation date.  This decision has important implications for your teacher contracts, particularly those that involve dual assignments.

Donna ISD employed Mr. Alaniz as a teacher, and “Athletic and PE Coordinator.” He had served in this dual capacity for several years, with his salary set out in separate categories.  The largest amount was for the teaching, with the “supplemental duties” bumping up his overall compensation.

On the first day of instruction in 2017, the district made some changes. Some of Mr. Alaniz’s supplemental responsibilities were eliminated and others were reduced.  Thus the district dropped his compensation by $8,780—an overall reduction of 11%.  Mr. Alaniz filed a grievance and took it to T.E.A.

In his decision, Commissioner Morath lays out the two basic ways in which schools can employ someone in a dual capacity. You can do it via a single, unified contract, such as “Teacher/Coach.” Or you can offer a teaching contract governed by T.E.C. Chapter 21 and set out all “supplemental duties” in a completely separate agreement, which would be an “at-will arrangement.”  In this case, the district thought they had the latter arrangement. The Commissioner concluded, however, that the contract was ambiguous as to supplemental duties. After quoting the critical paragraphs in the contract, the Commissioner observes:

These paragraphs are contradictory and create ambiguity.  Although paragraph 5.4 states that Petitioner’s contract “does not cover assignment of or payments for supplemental duties, paragraph 5.4 also provides that the district may assign supplemental duties, paragraph 5.3 states that the District has the right to assign or reassign additional duties at any time, and paragraph 6.1 indicates that the salary includes all assigned duties.  Paragraph 5.1 refers to positions, plural, suggesting that the contract covers more than one position.

The Commissioner also cited the Pay Schedule that the district produced, in which:

The separate elements of his pay were presented to Petitioner as one package. There is nothing on the Pay Schedule or in the contract itself that would lead a reasonable person to believe that Petitioner was free to accept or reject any portion of that document.

Bottom line: the contract was ambiguous. Ambiguous contracts are interpreted “against the drafter,” which was the school district.  So the Commissioner went with Mr. Alaniz’s interpretation, which was that this was a unified, Chapter 21 contract.  That being the case, the district could not unilaterally reduce the man’s pay after the penalty-free date.

HR directors should get with their lawyers after this decision and discuss the basic language for teacher contracts.  In particular, the Commissioner noted that key terms lacked definition.  These were “assignment,” “supplemental duty” and “additional duties.”

The case is Alaniz v. Donna ISD, decided by the Commissioner on July 13, 2018.  It’s Docket No. 029-R10-02-2018.


 Tomorrow: Toolbox Tuesday discusses “credible threats.”