Getting a handle on new legislation affecting school HR operations

Determining what school HR administrators need to know about new legislation in the wake of a legislative session is always a challenge. The 84th session of the Texas Legislature was no different.
School HR administrators should particularly note new legislation on the rights of exempt staff to take breaks to express breast milk, attempts to strengthen the quality of teacher preparation candidates that may exacerbate teacher shortages, new language with regard to educator misconduct reporting, and a budget that does little to solve the state’s school finance problems.

Modest budget increase

The budget for the biennium (fiscal years 2016 and 2017) didn’t provide much good news for Texas public schools. Funding for public education was increased $1.5B and the basic, per-pupil allotment was increased from $5,040 to $5,140. This modest increase will only bring about 90 percent of districts back to the state funding level they had in 2011. At the same time, districts will have to pick up the tab for an additional 1.5 percent contribution to employees’ retirement.
The budget did fund new training academies for public school educators who teach reading, and math (SB 925 and 934, respectively) to K‒3 students. The education commissioner must adopt criteria for selecting teachers to attend and those selected may receive a stipend. The intent of the laws is to improve early reading and math instruction. Another training academy to provide reading comprehension instruction (SB 972) for 4th- and 5th-grade students was also funded.
This budget restored funding ($1.5M over the biennium) for tuition scholarships for educational aides seeking teaching degrees. This program was cut entirely in 2011.
The legislature elected not to increase the state’s contribution to TRS-ActiveCare, instead declaring that a joint interim committee will study TRS-ActiveCare rates in the interim (HB 2974). Also to be studied at the request of districts is the effect of allowing them to opt out of TRS-ActiveCare or setting rates by region. Districts that opt in are not given that option currently and some have noted that private health premium rates in their area are lower than TRS’ rates. Reports on these issues are due by Jan. 15, 2017.

Effective immediately

HB 218—Changing the certification requirements for teachers of bilingual classes

This law is an attempt to help districts deal with bilingual teacher shortages. It specifies that English as a Second Language-certified teachers be allowed to teach the English components of bilingual programs that use a dual-language immersion/one-way or two-way models. Bilingual teachers must teach the non-English program components. 

HB 2186—Relating to suicide prevention training for public school educators

This law requires school districts and open enrollment charter schools to provide suicide prevention training on an annual basis at new-hire orientation and for existing educators on a schedule adopted by the Texas Education Agency (TEA). The Department of State Health Services must recommend a best practice-based program in coordination with TEA. 

Effective Sept. 1, 2015:

HB 786—Providing all public employees with the right to express breast milk in the workplace

This law extends to all employees the right to express breast milk at work. The Fair Labor Standards Act had already extended that right to nonexempt employees. 
Districts must do the following:
  • Offer all employees, including teachers, “reasonable” breaks to express breast milk. There is no definition in the law of what constitutes “reasonable” breaks in terms of either break length or frequency.
  • Base break intervals on the needs of each employee. 
  • Provide a place other than a public restroom for employees to express breast milk. The location has to be “shielded from view and free from intrusion.” 
  • Have a written statement, most likely in the employee handbook, that states the district supports the practice of expressing breast milk and will make reasonable accommodations to meet employee needs. (Editor’s note: This provision will be included in the July 2015 update to our Model Employee Handbook.)
  • Protect the employment rights of breastfeeding mothers, who should not be suspended, terminated, or discriminated against because they assert their rights to take breaks for this purpose.

HB 1783—Reporting educator criminal history or misconduct to SBEC; giving school employees the right to report crimes directly to law enforcement

This law requires open-enrollment charter school directors to report educator misconduct to the State Board for Educator Certification (SBEC).
The most important change this law makes is that it creates a new standard of reporting to SBEC with regard to employee misconduct. Superintendents and charter directors are now required to report to SBEC whenever an educator’s employment is terminated based on evidence that the educator engaged in misconduct. The law previously required districts to report misconduct when they made a determination that an educator engaged in misconduct. 
Doug Phillips, director of educator investigations at the Texas Education Agency, said his office was asked to help develop the new language by Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa (D‒McAllen). The end result is an attempt to make it clear that school administrators should report to TEA whenever they have evidence that an educator engaged in misconduct, even if it’s not conclusive. Phillips believes the old language created a loophole since administrators often don’t catch educators in the act, so to speak. “If there’s any question, just report it to us, and we’ll figure it out,” Phillips said. “Shift the burden to us and away from you.” 
The law also requires superintendents or directors of charter schools to report to SBEC if an educator resigns and evidence exists that he or she engaged in misconduct. Superintendents and charter school directors are also required to complete an investigation of an educator based on evidence that the educator may have engaged in misconduct.
The law also changes the timeline to report misconduct to SBEC. Superintendents or charter school directors are required to report within seven days of when they know of a reportable incident. Previous law required reporting within seven days of when a superintendent or charter director first learned of an educator’s criminal record, termination, or resignation.
Right of school employees to report crimes. This law gives school employees the right to report a crime they have witnessed at school to any peace officer with authority to investigate. Districts are prohibited from adopting a policy requiring an employee to refrain from reporting crimes or reporting criminal activity only to specified school employees or peace officers.
The law also expands the persons subject to the Misuse of Official Information offense in the Texas Penal code section 39.06. Now, school administrators (not just principals, as previously specified) are prohibited from coercing others into suppressing or failing to report information to a law enforcement agency.

HB 2205—Changes current law related to SBEC, educator certification, educator preparation programs, teaching permits, and educator investigations

This law’s statement of intent is to strengthen standards and hold educator preparation programs accountable for the quality of teacher training. It decreases the minimum grade-point average (GPA) for admission to educator preparation programs from 2.75 to 2.5 on a 4.0 scale, but requires that the overall GPA of each incoming class can’t be less than 3.0 on a 4.0 scale for all educator preparation entities. It also increases the hours of required field-based experience.
Of concern is a new limitation on the number of times a person can take any certification exam. Any exam can be attempted four times, unless SBEC waives the limit for good cause. Those who take certification exams before Sept. 1, 2015, can retake them up to four times after that date. Some school HR administrators are concerned that this new limit will create shortages of EC‒6 core content teachers and bilingual teachers.
Some of the law’s other provisions are as follows:
  • It requires SBEC to establish accountability rules for educator preparation programs. SBEC must develop rules to sanction programs that don’t meet accreditation standards under the accountability system.
  • It requires more program quality information to be made available, including the ratio of field supervisors, the rate of employment for first-year graduates, and results of graduate satisfaction surveys.
  • It allows the education commissioner to issue a subpoena in the course of an educator misconduct investigation. This will allow TEA investigators to get documents that are not redacted from school districts.
  • It allows school boards to issue school district teaching permits to qualified people who don’t have bachelor’s degrees to teach Career and Technology Education courses. 

SB 674—Instruction regarding mental health, substance abuse, and youth suicide in educator training programs

This law amends the education code to improve the instruction provided to prospective educators with regard to mental health, substance abuse, and youth suicide in their preservice training. The goal is to help educators detect and steer toward treatment students with mental or addictive disorders. 

HB 3373—Liability of reimbursing employers under the Texas Unemployment Compensation Act

The intent of this law is to limit employer liability under the Texas Unemployment Compensation Act. The law closed a loophole to ensure that employers who reimburse the Texas Workforce Commission for benefits paid from the unemployment compensation fund are not liable for faulty claims. 
In the past, when an employee quit a job in a school district to take another job, then subsequently lost that job, the school district would sometimes be held liable for paying unemployment, even though it wasn’t the last employer. This law should eliminate that problem.  

HB 2974—Related to TRS systems and programs

This law revises the method for determining the surcharge imposed on a district that rehires a retiree. TRS will now set a single rate applicable to all retirees, taking into account the amount of the state’s contribution. The new law eliminates the requirement that districts determine each retiree’s surcharge based on the level of coverage and other factors. 
The law also clarifies that an individual must be employed on at least a half-time basis by a single employer to be eligible for membership. Employment with more than one employer cannot be combined to establish membership in TRS.

HB 445—Providing notice of the availability of paid leave for military service to public officers and employees

This law was intended to reduce confusion about entitlement to paid state military leave. Districts will be required to give written notice at the time of employment of the number of work days of paid military leave available to employees who are in the Texas National Guard, Texas State Guard, the U.S. Armed Forces reserves, or a state or federal Urban Search and 
Rescue Team. The notice could be included in the district’s employee handbook and in board policy. (Editor’s note: This notice will be included in our July 2015 update to the Model Employee Handbook.)
Districts must also provide those employees with a summary of the number of paid military days used in a year on request.

HB 664—Allowing employers to terminate employees who falsify their records by claiming they were members of the military

The law allows employers to fire employees who falsify or otherwise misrepresent their military record to get a job or benefits related to that job. School districts should note that this law applies to all employees, including those on contracts. It does not eliminate Chapter 21 protections, so school districts would have to follow the normal procedure for terminating a contract employee.

HB 2014—Allowing military personnel to obtain certification to teach career and technology education (CTE) classes in public schools

H.B. 2014 amends current law relating to the authority of military personnel to obtain certification to teach career and technology education classes in public schools. This law’s intent is to provide a “reasonable pathway” for current military members and veterans with experience as welders, mechanics, and equipment maintenance workers to receive certification to allow them to teach CTE classes in public schools without having to obtain an occupational license. Other alternative certification programs for veterans exist, but many don’t satisfy CTE program requirements. 

SB 1309—Changing the eligibility requirements to issue teaching certificates to Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC) instructors

This law amends the Texas Education Code to allow a person who has a JROTC instructor teaching certification from any branch of the U.S. military to obtain a standard teaching certificate. Its intent was to provide a career pathway to teaching or campus administration for veterans and eliminate the fees districts pay for emergency permits for JROTC instructors. 
To obtain a certificate, a person must hold a bachelor’s degree, be a certified JROTC instructor, and complete an approved educator preparation program. JROTC instructors are not required to hold a JROTC teaching certificate to be employed by a school district but do require an emergency permit.
To obtain principal certification, the law specifies that state-certified JROTC teachers hold classroom teaching permits and that their years of district employment count as creditable years of teaching experience.
The law goes into effect Sept. 1, 2015, but SBEC is charged with proposing rules to establish the certificate by Jan. 1, 2016.

SB 107—Designating campus behavior coordinators 

This law requires that the principal or another campus administrator selected by the principal be designated the campus behavior coordinator to consider a the actions of a student prior to removing him or her from class (the student’s discipline history, intent, whether he or she acted in self-defense, and whether he or she had the ability to determine that the act was wrong). The intent of the law is to strengthen oversight of behavior management and make removal of students more discretionary.