AUSTIN (KXAN) — This month, Gov. Greg Abbott directed the Texas Education Agency to create a task force to investigate the state’s teacher shortage.

This comes as data shows school districts statewide have sent in more requests to the state in the last seven months — to consider suspending or even revoking educators’ teaching certificates for job abandonment — than they have in past years.

In the past, the State Board for Educator Certification has most often decided to suspend the educators’ teaching certificate for a year for contract abandonment, which prevents the person from teaching in Texas for that period. Hiring managers would also be able to view the suspension on their teaching certificate, even after the suspension expires.

Olivia Telebelsarfi, a former math teacher at John B. Connally High School in Pflugerville, was one of eight teachers school board trustees voted to report to the TEA in January. It was the first time they used this practice, according to a district spokesperson.

“Moving forward, we will be holding staff accountable because it’s causing harm to our students,” said Pflugerville ISD trustee Jean Mayer during a Jan. 20 board meeting.

Pflugerville Independent School District trustee Jean Meyer speaks at Jan. 20 school board meeting about recent resignations. (Pflugerville ISD)
Pflugerville Independent School District trustee Jean Meyer speaks at Jan. 20 school board meeting about recent resignations. (Pflugerville ISD Video)

Telebelsarfi told her principal in December she would not return after winter break. She wrote in her resignation letter she was disappointed with an increase in class sizes leading to “diluted teaching quality” and said she was concerned for her physical safety on campus.

She said before she resigned, she learned a student in her classroom brought a gun to school.

“It’s terrifying, because after learning that, how can you go back to work and teach like it’s a normal day? In your mind, you are thinking, ‘does that kid have a gun? Does that kid have a weapon? Is that kid going to do something crazy right now?’ You don’t know,” Telebelsarfi said.

“That’s a lot that the school is asking from a teacher: continue to come to work and teach, take on more students and ignore the fact that maybe one day this is going to happen,” she added.

The district confirmed it sent home multiple letters in the fall to staff and parents regarding the report of a possible weapon. In response to our questions on adding students to teachers’ rosters, the district said it commonly adds students to rosters and levels classes throughout the year for reasons such as teacher hiring, resignations and an influx of students in the course.

Throughout the pandemic, the State Board for Educator Certification has suspended more than 300 teaching certificates statewide for job abandonment. The board is in the process of investigating hundreds more complaints from school districts.

Since 2015, 77% of the cases the SBEC has decided have resulted in the educator having their certification suspended. State data showed only one certificate being revoked in the last seven years and two dozen cases where the district rescinded the complaint.

Paul Tapp, who along with his team provides legal assistance to educators as a part of the Association of Texas Professional Educators, said the sanctions fail to address the real reasons why teachers are leaving.

“The idea of just sanctioning teachers, penalizing teachers — that is not going to solve the problem,” said Tapp said. “We’ve got to deal with why these teachers leave even though, again, they are risking sanctions, they are risking their careers by doing so.”

Not every school district is using this method to prevent teachers from leaving mid-school year. Austin Independent School District said in a statement it “does not currently engage in the practice of sanctioning an educator’s certificate for contract abandonment.”

The Texas Legislature has given school districts statutory discretion to choose whether to report an educator who abandons a contract, according to the TEA.

Del Valle and Pflugerville ISDs have reported multiple teachers and support staff to the TEA for job abandonment in recent months.

“Every year, we have staff members who resign before the end of their contract. However, this year we have seen an unprecedented number of staff members leaving during the school year, leaving our classrooms without a teacher and our students and staff members in a lurch,” said Pflugerville ISD Chief Communications Officer Tamra Spence.

The district started the school year with more vacancies, roughly 60 across the district, which has left it spread thinly on staff to cover all the classrooms, Spence said.

The district has given multiple incentives for teachers and staff to stay on, according to Spence, including offering teachers pay intended for substitutes to the teachers filling in, which was not offered in previous school years. Spence said Pflugerville ISD also leads the Central Texas area in teacher pay.

The Del Valle ISD spokesperson said many teachers have either not shown up for work or resigned before the district found a suitable replacement.

Recently, the State Board for Educator Certification changed its rules on what qualifies as “good cause” for an educator to resign mid-school year. The TEA, which oversees the board, said the changes were the result of more than two years of discussions.

Under the new rules, the SBEC “must consider” any mitigating factors relevant to the teacher’s conduct, according to the ATPE, and depending on the circumstances, it could reduce the sanction.

The changes include four new mitigating factors, including changing careers, an unexpected reduction in base pay, a change in the educator’s campus assignment that caused a significant adverse impact on the educator’s health condition or family needs, and working conditions that reasonably posed an immediate threat of significant physical harm to the educator.