Liberty County School System Superintendent Dr. Valya S. Lee’s recommendation to terminate married teachers Brian and Tiffany Griggs for abandonment of contract failed Monday when the board of education delivered a split vote in the couple’s combined fair-dismissal hearing. Had the Griggs been terminated, they most likely would have faced sanctions from the state Professional Standards Commission, to include having their teaching certificates revoked in Georgia and states of reciprocity, including Florida, Alabama and South Carolina.
“We understand it is still up in the air whether a referral will be made to the PSC,” said Stan Baker, the Griggs’ attorney. “A referral could still be made to the PSC, but we hope the PSC would not find probable cause.”
Baker said since the school board acquiesced to the resignation, there is less chance that the commission would sanction the two teachers.
School-board members Becky Carter, Verdell Jones and Carolyn Smith-Carter voted against upholding the recommendation for termination, while BoE Chairwoman Lily Baker and board members Marcia Anderson and Carol Guyett voted for it. School board member Harold Woods was absent.
Sid Cottingham, a Douglas education attorney, presided over the hearing. Attorney Phil Hartley, of Harben, Hartley and Hawkins based in Gainesville, represented the school system. Baker is a Glynn County attorney with The Jordan Firm on St. Simons Island.
Brian Griggs was an English teacher and football coach at Bradwell Institute, and Tiffany Griggs taught seventh-grade science at Lewis Frasier Middle School. Both had renewed their contracts with the school system in April 2013, committing to teach through the 2013-14 school year.
The Griggs had applied with Teach Away Inc., an overseas teaching program, in mid-July and were offered teaching positions abroad Oct. 29. The pair turned in resignation letters to their respective school principals Nov. 6 and 8, 2013. Teach Away gave them an initial start date of Jan. 1, Tiffany Griggs said. Brian Griggs began his job at a school in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, in early February. Tiffany Griggs has experienced further delays in getting her visa processed, but plans to join her husband once she receives it, she said. The couple’s overseas teaching commitment is for 2½ years from the Jan. 1 date of hire, Griggs said.
Bradwell Institute Principal Scott Carrier and Lewis Fraser Middle School Principal Germaine Williams testified they informed the Griggs that they could be reported to the PSC if they resigned without receiving prior approval from the board of education. The principals advised the couple to speak with administrators at the central office.
Tiffany Griggs said she met with the system’s human-resource department and had made an appointment to meet with Lee in early November, but that appointment was canceled. She then met Lee following a coffee chat at the middle school the day after her canceled appointment and tried to follow up with emails and a certified letter, she said.
Lee testified that she also told Griggs during their impromptu in-person meeting about repercussions she and her husband could face should they resign without the school board’s approval. The superintendent said she presented the couple’s resignation letters to the board in an executive session, but that the board was not inclined to discuss the matter.
The school board’s attorney argued the Griggs should have waited to apply for the overseas teaching jobs once they had fulfilled their contracts with the Liberty County School System. Hartley also supported Lee’s stance, that teachers who resign for the specific reasons mentioned in PSC guidelines would not be charged for abandonment of contract: “A documented personal health problem or family medical problem that requires the educator’s full-time care and attention; a family situation that requires a move out of reasonable commuting distance of the contracted position; a documented spousal transfer and relocation out of a reasonable commuting distance of the contracted position; and a documented promotion within the field of education.”
Lee said a teacher also should be allowed to resign in the middle of a school year should their job performance be considered detrimental to students and therefore not be in the school district’s best interests.
Stan Baker told the board members they have sole authority to make a decision whether or not to terminate a school-system employee, regardless of PSC criteria. He said they should judge each request for resignation on a case-by-case basis.
Hartley contended the Griggs’ choice to take the overseas teaching positions was a lateral move and not a promotion. A raise in salary alone does not constitute a promotion; there also must be an elevation in professional status, Hartley reasoned. He cited the school board’s acceptance of Joshua Adam Carter’s resignation in January. Carter, a Bradwell Institute football coach and physical-education teacher, left the system to take a position as the defensive coordinator at Reinhardt College near Atlanta.
Stan Baker countered that Brian and Tiffany Griggs believe they are advancing their careers by accepting overseas teaching positions at higher salaries. He said the Griggs tried continuously to communicate with system administrators, and Tiffany Griggs even suggested a qualified teacher to replace her and provided lesson plans for her successor before leaving the school system.
There have been a total of 18 school-board-approved resignations of certified employees since mid-November 2013: a school counselor, teacher and academic coach on Nov. 19, 2013; two teachers and a nurse on Dec. 10, 2013; two teachers and a school nutrition director on Jan. 14; five teachers on Feb. 11; and three teachers and an assistant superintendent for teaching and learning on Feb. 25. There have been about 15 board-approved resignations of classified employees since mid-November.