Malden charter school seeks ‘damages’ from teachers for changing jobs

By Laura Barrett, MTA Communications

As a teacher, you’d have to do something pretty bad for your school to come after you for $6,087, right?


You would think so — unless, that is, you were a teacher at the Mystic Valley Regional Charter School in Malden.

Three recent Mystic Valley employees came to the MTA for help when they received letters billing them for thousands of dollars. Their offense? Resigning before the start of the upcoming school year to take better jobs with public schools in the Greater Boston area.

Matthew Kowalski

“I felt I was a good employee at Mystic Valley for seven years. I didn’t run out on my responsibilities. I didn’t leave the school in a damaging way. I can only assume they are coming after me to scare other teachers because they lose so many teachers every year.”

Matthew Kowalski
High school history and economics teacher

The MTA’s Legal Services Division is helping all three fight the bills.

Their stories underscore how abusive charter schools can be when no union or local school committee has any authority to keep them in check.

“It was shocking, hurtful and, of course, very stressful to get that letter,” said Matthew Kowalski, a high school history and economics teacher. “I felt I was a good employee at Mystic Valley for seven years. I didn’t run out on my responsibilities. I didn’t leave the school in a damaging way. I can only assume they are coming after me to scare other teachers because they lose so many teachers every year.”

Kowalski worked in the business world for five years before deciding to become a teacher. He taught in a Catholic school and then earned a master’s degree in education at Boston College. He landed a job at Mystic Valley in the fall of 2009, heading there with a positive impression of charter schools.

“I saw some of the good things they are doing, but also a lot of problems with the system,” he said. “A big one is that teachers feel powerless. Their opinions are not always valued. A lot of decisions about the curriculum are made by the trustees, who for the most part don’t have any background in education — at least not in the classroom.”

The grinding schedule at the school also presented problems for family life. The school year is a month longer and the school day is an hour longer at Mystic Valley than at most public schools, and the teachers there have no job security. With three children under the age of 6 and another one due in November, Kowalski was eager to get a more stable job in a public school.

Because they are not in a union, charter school staff members are at-will employees. At Mystic Valley, employees have to sign a new contract each year, no matter how long they have worked there. The contract for 2016-17 stipulates: “The School reserves the right to terminate this agreement at any time, for reasons it determines are in the best interests of the School.”

“It’s insane. They come with this contract in April or May and know that they’ve got you in a vicious cycle.”

— Stephen Tassinari, former teacher at Mystic Valley Regional Charter School

It goes on to say, “If Employee unilaterally terminates his/her employment with the School, Employee shall remain obligated to pay liquidated damages and to refrain from working in other sending district schools for the remainder of the school year.”

It gets worse. One might think that this unusual clause must refer to employees who leave in the middle of the school year, but that’s not so. The school demands that employees sign the contract in the spring for the upcoming school year — and then pay damages for terminating the contract at any time after that.

“Last year, the contract for the following school year came out in April,” Kowalski explained. “I asked for more time because my wife and I were still considering our plans for the following year after we found out we’d be having another child.

“They gave me some extra time, but then I got called into the office and was given an ultimatum to sign by April 29 or give up my position,” he continued. “With three young children at home, I couldn’t risk not having a job in the fall, so I had to sign. It’s tough for teachers, because a lot of openings come up in May, June, July or even later, but I had to sign.”

In fact, many jobs do not become available until after June 15, the date by which districts in Massachusetts have to notify teachers who don’t have Professional Teacher Status that they won’t be rehired in the fall.

“I was offered a job in Walpole a couple of weeks after I signed at Mystic Valley,” Kowalski said. “On May 20, exactly three weeks after I had signed the contract, I gave Mystic Valley written and verbal notice that I was offered this other job and I wanted to rescind my acceptance of the contract. I felt confident there were no damages. If I’d just been sent to a training because they expected I’d be back next year, maybe then I would understand that they’d want reimbursement. But there was nothing like that.”

In fact, Mystic Valley quickly hired Kowalski’s replacement, whom Kowalski trained and provided with all of his curricula and materials. He also assured students who were juniors that he would write their college recommendations in the fall, even after starting his new job.

Mystic Valley administrators didn’t even sign Kowalski’s contract until two weeks after he had rescinded his signature. He was sure there wouldn’t be a problem.

“I was shocked in the middle of July to get a letter demanding a payment of over $6,000 for liquidated damages,” he said. “What damages?”

He contacted his soon-to-be local association president in Walpole and was put in touch with the MTA Legal Services Division. In an Aug. 24 letter to Mystic Valley School Director Martin Trice, Kowalski’s MTA attorney wrote, “Why you would sign a contract after the other party had revoked his acceptance in writing is mystifying. Your efforts to then claim liquidated damages border on the unconscionable.”

“Although we expect employees to give us reasonable notice when they resign, I have never heard of a public school district trying to collect damages from employees who resign at the end of a school year to accept another job.”

— Thomas Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents

The attorney also attacked the contract’s non-compete clause forbidding former Mystic Valley teachers from working for one of the many sending districts, writing, “It would seem highly anomalous that charter schools, statutorily established to ‘stimulate the development of innovative programs within schools,’ would prevent their employees from disseminating their innovations into these other public schools. Given that all of this is financed through public funds, the anomalous likely becomes the unenforceable.”

The lawyer also noted that district schools not only cannot forbid their teachers from working in a competing charter school, but are legally required to give them a leave of absence of up to two years if they want to work in a charter school. The double standards abound.

Kowalski soon learned he wasn’t alone in fighting his former employer. Stephen Tassinari, who had been a “floating” teacher before becoming a special education teacher, received similar bad news after notifying Mystic Valley that he was leaving at the end of his fourth year at the school. He was charged $4,900 in “damages.”

“Teachers there come and go like a revolving door,” he said. “Most people do two years and leave.” Like Kowalski, Tassinari believes the school is trying to enforce the liquidated damages clause to stop the revolving door.

Rather than improve pay and working conditions, the school uses strong-arm tactics through the charter-imposed contract to force teachers to stay.

Although Tassinari liked many of his colleagues and students at Mystic Valley, he was ready for a change. He was offered a position in the Stoneham Public Schools and resigned from the charter school in July, well before teachers started back on Aug. 17. Like Kowalski, he was shocked to get a letter billing him for damages.

“It’s terrible,” he said. “It’s insane. They come with this contract in April or May and know that they’ve got you in a vicious cycle.”

A third teacher with a similar story is also being helped by the MTA. In his case, the school came after him a full year after he had left for a public school district.

There’s no way to know how many former employees — unaware that such a practice is unheard of in public education — have simply paid the charges.

Thomas Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, told MTA Today that “nothing shocks me” when it comes to charter school policies of this sort.

“Although we expect employees to give us reasonable notice when they resign,” Scott said, “I have never heard of a public school district trying to collect damages from employees who resign at the end of a school year to accept another job.”

Kowalski summed up his thoughts.

“It was a very stressful summer,” he said. “I was trying to prepare for my new job. I’ve got my three kids and another on the way. We had no income for two months and had to sort out temporary health insurance since Mystic Valley cut off my benefits at the end of June. I had a lot to do this summer. Getting this letter was a real distraction. I’m so grateful to the MTA for helping me try to resolve this situation.”

Visit the MTA's Charter Schools Toolkit for more resources including a list of school committees opposed to lifting the cap on charter schools and a map of funding lost to charter schools by district.