Firing problem teachers was even harder before 2011 reforms
An Ionia Public Schools teacher declared she was quitting after having an emotional meltdown in front of her second-grade students. She then abruptly walked out of the school, according to documents obtained in a Freedom of Information Act request.
But after the school accepted the verbal notice as a resignation, the teacher claimed she did not formally quit, causing a monthslong battle over her employment status.
Anne Purdun, a second-grade teacher at Emerson Elementary, yelled profanities in her classroom while students were present on April 20, 2016, according to charges filed by the school for a tenure proceeding, obtained through an open records law request. The charges include three counts of misconduct/insubordination, one count of misconduct/unprofessional conduct, and one count of abandonment.
During the April incident, Purdun was taking her class into a music classroom and became frustrated. The school district reported that Purdun said, “I will quit this freaking job! I am done. I am done with it!” and repeated her intent to quit in front of students and co-workers.
After dropping the class off at the music room, Purdun returned to her classroom yelling profanities in front of a student and a school social worker. The two were discussing a previous issue that may have instigated her outburst. Purdun then gathered some personal belongings from her desk said, “I have 25 years in, [vulgarity] this place, I quit; I’m done!” On her way out the building, Purdun told another employee that this individual would likely take over her class since she “just quit.”
According to the district's charges, she then left in her car. “She did not contact the administration before she left the building or ensure that an adult would retrieve her students from music class. She did not request a substitute teacher or indicate how long she would be gone for.” Purdun was gone for the rest of the school day and did not answer her phone when administrators called.
Michigan changed its teacher tenure laws in 2011. One key difference was changing the legal standard of dismissing a tenured teacher from requiring “reasonable and just cause” to simply “not arbitrary or capricious.” In practical terms this has meant school districts have been able to remove more tenured teachers out of the classroom since the process is faster and an administrative law judge is less likely to overrule the district’s decision.
Michigan Capitol Confidential is doing an investigation of every tenure case in Michigan, and the results show significantly more tenured teachers losing their jobs, fewer cases before the state tenure commission, and less costs in legal fees and buyouts. A previous investigation before the state changed tenure laws showed that even teachers violating state laws, much less having problems at their jobs as educators, were very difficult to remove.
Ionia's situation came to light in a Freedom of Information Act asking for any tenured teacher attempted to be removed.
Following the tenured teacher's meltdown, several students expressed concern for Purdun’s well-being and said her actions came because some students acted “naughty.”
Purdun, on April 20 and 21, left voicemails and sent text messages to co-workers acknowledging she was done working for the district and apologizing for her outburst.
On the day of Purdun’s meltdown, Patricia Batista, then-superintendent of the district, had delivered to her home a letter accepting her resignation.
Purdun also left her injectable diabetes medication on her desk when she left the school, which the district alleged was a safety risk for students.
The documents also described Purdun’s history of misconduct. “Mrs. Purdun has a history of yelling and making demeaning statements directed at individual students that is both embarrassing for the student and unprofessional,” the charges said. “Mrs. Purdun refused to recognize that her behavior was unacceptable and unprofessional and her misconduct continued to the day she resigned.”
“On several occasions throughout the 2015-16 school year, Mrs. Purdun has yelled at individual students out of frustration and impatience,” according to the charges, which also said that she told her class to shut up and used harsh disciplinary methods.
The tenure charges also detailed how the teacher violated an order to not contact employees or students in the district by talking to students after dropping her stepson off at the school where she was formerly employed.
The documents, dated June 30, 2016, stated that Batista recommended the Ionia Public Schools Board of Education proceed with tenure charges. The case is being reviewed by an administrative law judge who will determine if Purdun actually resigned. If it’s determined that she did not formally resign, the tenure charges and school board will determine her future employment.
Ben Kirby, associate superintendent for the school district, declined to comment on the case.
Filipe Iorio, Purdun’s lawyer, did not respond to requests for comment. Neither did Ervin Pratt, the Michigan Education Association’s union steward for the district.
Ben DeGrow, director of education policy for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, said the case shows the 2011 reforms to the state’s teacher tenure law could be vindicated.
“This case could further vindicate past improvements of Michigan’s teacher tenure law,” he said. “A key part of the 2011 reform made it cheaper and easier for districts to part ways with veteran teachers who badly misbehave.”