Key Administrator Contract Deadlines on the Horizon 

by Malina Piontek, Attorney

December 4, 2019

For administrators in Wisconsin, December is a time when administrative personnel moves are being considered by many school boards. This activity is largely driven by the statutory contract renewal/non-renewal process, as the first statutory deadline for that process is January 31, 2020. But by December, many school boards are already well into discussing whose contracts will be renewed or non-renewed so that they can be sure to meet the statutory deadlines.

Wisconsin law requires school boards to contract with administrators, in writing, as well as to comply with specific contract renewal and non-renewal procedures and deadlines.  Principals have been increasingly calling AWSA’s legal hotline with questions about administrator contracts and these statutory requirements. This Update will cover the essentials of Wisconsin’s administrator contract law and the steps you need to take to protect your contract rights.

Statutory Requirement for Written Principal Contracts 

Wisconsin has a long history of school boards entering into contracts with their employees, including teachers, principals and superintendents, as a means of defining the basic terms of the relationship: how much a board will pay an individual for services provided over a set period of time – usually a school year. The essence of the contractual relationship between boards and its employees is stability for students, parents, teachers, principals, superintendents and the school board during a school term.

State law requires principal contracts to be in writing and filed with the school district clerk. The term of each contract may not exceed two years, and one-year contracts are permitted. Two-year contracts may provide for “one or more extensions of one year each.”   The statute also sets forth the procedure for school boards to use when non-renewing administrator contracts 

Non-renewal

In order to non-renew a principal’s contract, the board must comply with all of the statutory requirements, which includes strictly adhering to its timelines. For most contracts, the first deadline mandated by state law for school boards to take action is Friday, January 31, 2020. 

Let me explain what “for most contracts” means. Under Wisconsin’s administrator contract statute, the timelines for renewal and non-renewal work backwards from the expiration date of an individual administrator’s contract. A board must provide a principal with a preliminary notice of non-renewal in writing by registered mail, at least five (5) months prior to the expiration of the contract.  For example, for a contract ending on June 30, 2020, the board must provide the principal with the required preliminary written notice by January 31, 2020. However, if you have a contract with a different expiration date, because, for example, you were hired later in summer, you must count backward five months from its expiration date. Assuming an expiration date of August 15, 2020, your school board must issue you a preliminary notice of non-renewal on or before March 15, 2020.

Keep in mind that a board may only non-renew a contract that is in its expiration year. This means that if you have a contract that expires on June 30, 2021, or later, you’re not on the non-renewal bubble.

For those of you still reading (because your contract expires June 30, 2020), let’s further explore the statutory process.

In addition to meeting the five-month date, a school board must also provide preliminary notice in writing and it must be provided by registered mail. So if a board tells you that it is issuing you preliminary notice on January 31, 2020, but doesn’t put it in writing, it has not met the minimum, mandatory statutory requirements.

Furthermore, if the notice isn’t provided to you by registered mail on or before January 31, 2020, the board also has not met the minimum, mandatory statutory requirements. Keep in mind that registered mail is not the same as certified mail, general mail, or email. Handing you a preliminary notice does not comply with the law either.

The administrator contract law also sets forth what a preliminary notice of non-renewal needs to say. In the preliminary notice, the board must advise that it is considering not continuing to contract with the individual for the next year. The preliminary notice is not final action, as administrators have a right to request a hearing regarding the possibility of non-renewal. To that end, the notice must specifically advise that if s/he files a written request with the board within seven days after receiving the notice, the administrator has a right to a hearing before the board. The statute does not specify whether the seven-day requirement is seven calendar days or seven business days.  To preserve your rights, it is wise to use seven calendar days.

The administrator who receives preliminary notice of non-renewal also has the right to request the reasons upon which the board is considering non-renewal. The administrator’s request must be made within seven days after receiving the preliminary notice. It is recommended that the written request for a hearing also include a request for the reasons upon which the board is considering non-renewal. Be sure to also specify whether you want a public or private hearing. In response to your request, board must provide the reasons for the non-renewal in writing prior to the hearing.

The law provides that no person may be dismissed except by a majority vote of the full membership of the school board. Thus, the vote on a contract non-renewal must be approved by a majority vote of the full membership of the board, even if all of the school board members are not present at the meeting. This is one reason that boards start their planning by December: so that they can find a time to hold a hearing when all board members can attend.

Ultimately the board must issue a final notice of contract non-renewal. Final notice must be given at least four (4) months prior to the expiration of the individual’s contract, or Thursday, February 28, 2020. Unlike preliminary notice, the statute does not require final notice to be given to the individual by registered mail, but does require notice to be given in writing.

Contract Renewal 

If a school board fails to meet either of these two key dates – January 31 or February 28 – the board may not move forward with non-renewal.  If your current contract expires on June 30, 2012, and January 31 rolls around but you haven’t received a preliminary notice in writing by registered mail, great news! Your administrator contract is intact. And there’s even more good news - not only is your contract in place for the upcoming school year, but, by operation of the administrator contract law, your contract rolled for two years.

A school board can also affirmatively renew an administrator contract by giving at least four months’ notice (from the expiration date as discussed above) in writing of the board’s intent to renew the contract.  However, when the board takes no action to renew or non-renew the contract, the current contract is automatically extended for two years, even if the original contract was only for one year. 

If the board fails to act, or misses a deadline, a principal should not automatically accept a one-year contract, because by virtue of the law, the underlying contract has rolled for two years. However, the downside is that the “contract then in force” (the words of the statute) continues as is, unless modified by the parties. This means that you should be prepared to discuss changes to your contract with the board, such as your salary. Once changes have been agreed upon, a new contract should be issued and signed by both parties.

Contract Acceptance

Regardless of whether the board provides notice of renewal, or provides no notice at all, the administrator must accept or reject the renewal or automatic extension of his or her contract in writing at least three months prior to the contract expiration; or, using our June 30, 2020, contract date, by March 30, 2020.

While there is no case law addressing this specific part of the administrator contract law, a principal puts him- or herself at risk by not writing to the board by the deadline to inform it that s/he accepts the two-year contract. A board could argue that failure to provide the board with written notice by the deadline voids the contract. In short, provide the board with written notice that you accept a two-year contract before March 30, 2020. It may feel awkward to write to the board rather than your superintendent, but the law requires you to do so.

Here is a sample letter that you may consider using as a guide to accept a new two-year contract.

(Date on or before March 30, 2020)

(Name and address of school district)

Attention:  (School district clerk)

RE: Contract Ending June 30, 2020

Dear_______________________:

My employment contract as (position title) expires on June 30, 2020.

Since I have not yet received a notice of renewal and/or a new contract, I am providing notice pursuant to section 118.24(6) of the Wisconsin Statutes that I accept an extension of my contract for an additional two years.

I would like to meet with the Board as soon as convenient to discuss the terms of my new contract as well as an adjustment of my compensation and benefits.

Thank you for your attention to this matter. I look forward to finalizing the terms of my new contract.

Sincerely yours,

(signature)

(date on or before March 30, 2020)

C: Superintendent 


As you can see from the sample letter, this is the time to renegotiate substantive provisions and clarify any unclear language in your contract. School boards may not make unilateral changes to an administrator contract, as the law specifically references mutual modification by the parties rather than unilateral modification by the board. Substantive changes which must be agreed to by both parties include items such as salary, number of contract days, contributions to health insurance premiums, number of sick and vacation days, reimbursement for tuition, and early retirement provisions.

Pay attention to other provisions in the contract that may need to be modified or re-negotiated at renewal time, such as professional development, attendance at conferences, job title and description, liquidated damages in the event of a contract breach, post-retirement benefits and standards for dismissal (whether just cause, arbitrary and capricious or another standard). 

As is the case for non-renewal, the law likewise provides that no person may be employed except by a majority vote of the full membership of the school board. Thus, a vote on the renewal of a contract, or the offer of a new or modified contract, must be approved by a full majority of the board.

List of Important Dates

In sum, if this is the last year of your contract and it expires on June 30, 2020, mark these dates in your calendar:

January 31, 2020, Preliminary Notice of Non-renewal
February 28, 2020, Final Notice of Non-renewal
March 30, 2020, Written Notice to the Board Accepting or Rejecting Contract 

If you have any questions about your contract, or the renewal/non-renewal process, call me at the Hotline or email me at [email protected] I’d be happy to answer your questions!

This article was written by Attorney Malina Piontek, AWSA’s Level I Legal Services Provider. You may direct your Level I call-in questions to Malina at 608-497-3037. You may email her at [email protected]. The views expressed herein are exclusively those of Ms. Piontek. This article was designed to provide you with general authoritative information and with commentary as a service to AWSA members. It should not be relied upon as legal advice. You are encouraged to contact your district legal counsel should you require legal advice regarding this topic.

 

 

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