NORTH TEXAS (CBS 11 NEWS) – If you were busted for taking a weapon to work or got in trouble for sexually harassing someone on the job, chances are you’d be fired.
But for school district employees, the people that teach our children, there are different standards. Laws in place allow some employees to quietly resign after certain types of incidents and then get rehired in another school district.
People in the education industry call it “passing the trash” and it happens everywhere. School districts will get rid of an employee — for something as small as not getting along with co-workers, or something as big as having a relationship with a student. Then, months later, that employee is working in another district where parents, and sometimes even the administration, know nothing about that teacher’s past.
Just last month Tanya Flink pled guilty to two counts of having an inappropriate relationship with her students. The 40-year-old teacher was a science teacher in the Birdville ISD when she met Richard Ortiz, Jr. At the time Ortiz was a senior in high school, but now he’s her husband.
“And when did you marry him? Was it right after you were indicted,” CBS 11 I-Team Reporter, Mireya Villarreal asked Flink as she left a court hearing. “No,” she answered.
Flink tried to hide her face as she walked away from our camera.
“You didn’t marry him right after you got charged criminally,” Villarreal followed up. “No,” she said as she ducked into the courthouse stairwell.
But long before Flink was charged with a crime and long before she voluntarily gave up her teaching certificate, Birdville ISD officials knew something was going on.
The I-Team uncovered documents that show in December 2010 an email was sent to a Haltom High School counselor – it was from a fellow teacher. In it, the teacher described how a student reached out to her about a potential relationship between her ex-boyfriend and another teacher.
Two months later there was another email. This time it was addressed to the school’s principal at the time, Mike Jasso. On the side of the email, hand-written notes show Jasso had a phone conversation with a parent who was concerned about their son’s relationship with Tanya Flink.
Then, just two weeks after that email, in February 2011 a Birdville ISD investigator agreed to end the district’s investigation into Flink, in exchange for her resignation. Flink was paid through the end of the school year and in August 2011, just six months after she resigned from Birdville, she was back in the classroom – this time at Fort Worth ISD’s Carter Riverside High School.
A parent who only wanted to be known by the first name Offelia said, “We can’t stop it because they keep hiring these people.”
Offelia had a son attending Carter Riverside in Fort Worth when Flink was hired. She’s frustrated the school never told parents what was going on. “If she did it once, she’s going to do it again,” she said. “You know, that’s not right and that’s not safe for our children.”
Birdville ISD notified the Texas Education Agency (TEA) about Flink in September 2011, seven months after she had resigned and moved on to another district. By that time a new district investigation out of Birdville revealed Flink might have had four different relationships with four different male students between 2008 and 2011.
So how was Flink able to leave one district quietly and end up somewhere else?
“A lot of times, when a district takes a look at an individual employee and decides they want to separate from them, instead of going through a lengthy process of termination, what they’ll do is enter into these resignation agreements,” Steven Pool explained.
Pool is the director for the United Educators Association, a union for school district employees. His organization often helps negotiate the agreements between an employee and a school district.
“There are a lot of parents that will feel like the district and the union are hiding things. Is that what’s going on here?” Villarreal asked Pool. “Well, no one’s hiding anything,” he said. “A lot of it is confidential personnel matters that just can’t be disclosed.”
Some districts call it settlement agreement and release; others, resignation agreement and mutual release or compromise settlement agreements and release. Critics even call it “passing the trash”.
But no matter what you call the agreements, it’s clear school districts across the state use them to conceal the details of an employee’s exit from a school district.
“It’s not necessarily [about] bad employees. Each instance is different. And so, it could be poor performance, not getting along with administrators or other reasons,” Pool added.
The I-Team randomly reached out to more than a dozen North Texas school districts and found every one of them used these agreements. Dallas, Fort Worth, Plano, Irving, Grapevine-Colleyville, Keller, Mesquite, Highland Park, Arlington, Grand Prairie, Kennedale, Mansfield, Garland and Burleson ISD all use them.
But the I-Team dug deeper and, in some cases, was able to find out why these agreements were made. For example:
- In Arlington a teacher took a knife to school and said she couldn’t stop thinking about cutting herself
- A special education teacher in Plano was accused of hitting and roughly handling special needs students
- Out of Dallas a teacher was caught cheating on end of the semester exams
Those are all teachers who signed an agreement, left the district, but kept their teaching certificate. That means, they could be back in the classroom, somewhere else, teaching your children.
“It is basically the school district saying, enough. We thought that this teacher was going to be better, but these are some things we can no longer tolerate,” DISD Communications Director Jon Dahlander noted.
Despite reaching out to several school districts for comment, Dallas ISD is the only district that agreed to talk with the CBS I-Team about the agreements.
Dahlander couldn’t talk about the specifics of any case because the documents have confidentiality clauses. But he did tell us that using these agreements often saves a district thousands of dollars in legal fees – money hey might end up spending if they tried to fire a teacher.
“Is this all about the money?” Villarreal questioned. “Or is it also about getting the teacher out?”
“It’s about both things,” Dahlander clarified. “It’s really about trying to create a separation and a separation understanding between the employee and the school district.
Most of the agreements also include a neutral reference clause that keeps districts from passing on anything bad about a departing teacher. In fact, the district is obligated to give them a basic reference.
I-Team Reporter Mireya Villarreal asked Dahlander about the need for neutral references, “Even though this teacher has done something wrong, you’re still giving them a reference for another district. Why do that?”
“It’s obviously not our preference,” he said. “But our first preference, of course, is to make sure that we as a school district are no longer affiliated with that particular person.
We spoke with Richard Ortiz’s father off-camera. He believes the system failed their family. That’s why he and his wife were the ones that alerted Fort Worth ISD about Flink’s past. If Birdville ISD wasn’t going to protect students in another district Ortiz and his wife were going to take matters into their own hands.
When a teacher resigns mid-year school district administrators will often put them on administrative leave, taking them out of the classroom and away from children. But, while they’re out, they still get paid their salary and receive benefits.
Local State Representative Lon Burnam recently filed a bill that would force state-funded agencies, like school districts, to turn over the details of these agreements, if those salaries and benefits add up to more than $30,000. Representative Burnam filed the bill did it after hearing about Tarrant County’s settlement agreement worth $375,000 – it was for a harassment case involving District Attorney Joe Shannon.
Burnam explained the bill wouldn’t affect most teachers because their settlements aren’t above $30K. The bill passed the House, but not the Senate this session. He’s vowed to file it again next session.
The CBS 11 I-Team received the following statement from Mark Thomas, the communications director with the Birdvile Independent School District –
“BISD does not condone and strictly prohibits inappropriate relationships between employees and students. The district promptly investigates all reports or allegations of suspected inappropriate employee-student relationships, and when appropriate, contacts law enforcement, Child Protective Services and the State Board for Educator Certification (SBEC). Educators are trusted to keep students safe, and any inappropriate relationship between an educator and a student violates that trust. The district takes these matters very seriously and will continue to foster a safe and positive educational environment for all of our students.“
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