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SC teacher sues district, saying she was forced into unpaid work. Will others join?

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South Carolina teachers are leaving the classroom at an alarming rate
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South Carolina teachers are leaving the classroom at an alarming rate

A Cherokee County educator has filed a lawsuit demanding pay for having worked after-school work and paid out of pocket for supplies for her students. And she is asking to have others join her.

Sixth grade English teacher Shannon Burgess claims the Cherokee County School District violated state and federal wage and labor laws by requiring her and other teachers to work a concession stand at after-school sporting events without being paid. She also claims the district violated state and federal law and broke teacher contracts by being forced to buy classroom supplies and gift baskets for a Parent Teacher Organization auction with her own money.

Separately, the teacher claims the district required her to provide daily lessons plans for her students while on family medical leave, in violation of federal law.

The lawsuit names the school district, its board of trustees, its superintendent and Granard Middle School Principal Gavin Fisher as defendants.

The Cherokee County School District Office of the Superintendent said Wednesday the district had yet to be served with the lawsuit and could not comment.

The lawsuit follows a demonstration in May when 10,000 teachers and their supporters marched to the State House, criticizing lawmakers for refusing to act on their concerns over low pay and unfair working conditions that, they say, has driven hundreds of good teachers out of the classroom.

But Burgess’ attorney, John Reckenbeil of the Greenville area said the problem is more broad than just one school district.

In the complaint, he wrote, “it has long been a pattern of practice throughout this nation and the state of South Carolina that school districts ... have unconscionably and impermissibly shifted operating costs of the classroom directly on the financial backs of our teachers.”

South Carolina teachers, students and advocates marched to the State House to call on lawmakers to increase their pay and approve reforms that improve the state’s public schools.

Educators echo lawsuit claims

Teacher advocates said Burgess’ complaints are not unusual.

“Over and over teachers are being asked to do things outside the classroom that are not academic that take hours” without being compensated, said Sherry East, president of the S.C. Education Association.

Burgess, in her lawsuit, claims she was forced to work at after-school sporting events selling concessions to profit the school without being paid. Her lawsuit also claims she was entitled to overtime.

She argues a district policy that states teachers are exempt from hourly pay for after-school work because they are salaried employees demonstrates a “blatant disregard” for the law.

“You’re having a teacher work in a non-academic (setting); therefore, she’s entitled to pay outside her contract,” Reckenbeil, her attorney, told The State Wednesday.

Reckenbeil claims in the suit Burgess and other teachers “did not offer themselves for work freely and without coercion.”

East, quoting an attorney, compared it to “involuntary servitude.”

“We’re not saying people should not be involved in their school community, but when you’re being volun-told (forced by a supervisor to volunteer) and it’s part of your evaluation, then we do have a problem with that,” she said. “It’s illegal to ask someone to work without getting paid.”

East said she could provide similar stories from 20 other teachers across the state, including one in the Upstate she said hired a caregiver to look after her husband after being told to work a volleyball game after school.

“She was too afraid. She didn’t want to rock the boat,” East said of the teacher.

Out-of-pocket classroom expenses at issue

Burgess, too, claims she and other educators were required to buy school supplies with money from their salaries. She also says the school principal required all teachers to purchase a gift basket for a school auction benefiting the Parent Teacher Organization.

Reckenbeil said he was not sure how much money the school district owes Burgess in unpaid wages and overtime. He is also seeking permission from a judge to allow other teachers in the district and across the state to join Burgess’ lawsuit who have similar claims.

“We’re talking about an infinite number of teachers throughout the state who are required to buy supplies,” Reckenbeil said.

East said the Education Association’s legal team is reviewing the lawsuit and assessing whether to get involved.

“It goes back to the disrespect, and teachers are just done with it,” she said.

State House leaders will hold closed-door meetings in September with teachers of the year to gather ideas for how lawmakers can help improve working conditions for teachers.

Senate Education Committee Chairman Greg Hembree, R-Horry, has said he plans to bring a school reform bill to the Senate floor in January.

After an education meeting at the State House on Wednesday, Hembree, said the after-school responsibilities come with being a teacher.

“That’s just part of being a professional and being a salaried employee,” Hembree said. “I guess it depends on whether you want to be a professional or whether you want to be something else — an hourly employee and clock in and clock out like a factory worker.”

Committee member and Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Kershaw, disagreed.

“Our teachers are often called on to do work that is not related to teaching, and we’re thankful when they do it, but they ought to be compensated and they ought to be compensated like professionals,” Sheheen said.

Sheheen continued: “The result is we have a lot of teachers leaving the classroom. ... But until the state and the voters of the state gets serious about paying teachers what they’re worth, we will continue to lose our best and brightest from the classroom.”

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Tom Barton covers South Carolina politics for The State. He has spent more than a decade covering local governments and politicians in Iowa and South Carolina, and has won awards from the S.C. Press Association and Iowa Newspaper Association for public service and feature writing.
Lucas Daprile has been covering the University of South Carolina and higher education since March 2018. Before working for The State, he graduated from Ohio University and worked as an investigative reporter at TCPalm in Stuart, FL. There, where he won multiple awards from the Society of Professional Journalists for his political and environmental coverage.
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