When she was 50, Rosa Weiss made the riskiest gamble of her career: going back to college to earn a teaching degree. She'd abandoned a more lucrative administrative career path to fulfill a "lifelong dream" of real classroom instruction. She borrowed $33,000 in student loans to earn her degree at the College of Santa Fe. Santa Fe Public Schools hired her right out of college, she says, and she taught 6th grade for three years, earning just over $30,000 annually and working a 20-hour-per-week side job to make ends meet.
But about two weeks before she finished her third year, Weiss says the principal at Carlos Gilbert Elementary School, Jennifer Sallee, informed her of a "special surprise." It was delivered on May 12, 2011.
"It was someone from human resources with a letter of termination," Weiss says.
Weiss claims to have been going through a grievance process with the principal to establish a "more professional relationship with my superior," but says she never expected the termination letter. The letter, signed by former SFPS Superintendent Bobbie Gutierrez, said Weiss had 10 working days to request reasons for her termination. "The reasons do not provide a basis to contest your termination under the New Mexico School Personnel Act," it added.
"I love teaching," Weiss says. "And with this termination came the absolute end of my career. So I went from 50 going back to college and getting an education degree—which is useless—to teaching three years and being terminated. And now I'm 60."
Weiss, with help from the teachers' union, the National Education Association-New Mexico, sued the SFPS Board of Education and superintendent last June.
The legal issue in the case: whether tenure rights go into effect once teachers sign a third-year contract, or once they complete that contract. (First- and second-year teachers do not have tenure rights.) SFPS gave Weiss a termination letter weeks before she completed her third year, and she was allowed to finish the third year.
If Weiss had tenure rights, SFPS wouldn't be allowed to terminate her without "just cause." She would also be allowed to contest her termination before the school board.
Weiss' complaint alleges SFPS failed to establish "just cause" and denied her right to appeal her termination.
But SFPS fought back, arguing that because Weiss never finished her third year, she didn't have tenure rights. In court documents, SFPS decried what it called Weiss' "creative construction" of the law. Three years, SFPS argued, means completing three years of employment. "In accordance with the plain meaning of the School Personnel Act," SFPS argued, "…it is clear that Plaintiff Weiss was employed for fewer than three consecutive years when she received her notice of termination, and thus [was] not tenured."
But Weiss' attorney, Jerry Todd Wertheim, pointed out in a hearing that SFPS did not actually "dismiss" Weiss—she simply wasn't offered a fourth-year contract.
SFPS wanted the case to be about math. To Weiss, it was more of an English and history lesson. After nearly a year's worth of briefings by both sides—arguing over the very meaning of "three" and "employment"—Judge Sarah Singleton sided with Weiss. To Singleton, the law says that "once a contract is issued for a third year, that is the third consecutive year of employment."
In April, SFPS announced it would take the case to the New Mexico Court of Appeals. Now, it could have implications for teachers statewide.
"The district's position is that you have to deliver the services and complete your third year of employment before you become tenured," says Tracie Oliver, human resource director for SFPS. "Therefore, [Weiss] has not earned tenure."
SFPS says it's unclear how much the case will cost.
Yet absent from the stacks of legal briefings is what Weiss calls the most "humiliating" professional experience of her career.
In a March 3, 2010 observation of Weiss by Sallee—in Weiss' second year—Sallee wrote that Weiss' classroom was "wonderful and a delight to observe." Evaluations from her first two years of teaching show Weiss met all competency levels and received only positive remarks.
Yet in February 2011, Weiss got a mediocre evaluation, with "Does not meet competency" ratings for failing to properly teach a new language-arts curriculum implemented district-wide, called Treasures, and using sarcasm in the classroom. (SFR was unable to reach Sallee for comment.)
Weiss disputed that evaluation. She provided SFR with documentation indicating that she completed multiple training sessions for Treasures and logged 25 hours of field experience in language-arts teaching at Santa Fe Community College during her third year at Carlos Gilbert.
"So I was doing a pretty good job in that area," she says. She persisted in learning the complex Treasures program, she says, despite computer snafus and questions that wouldn't match up with answers. One day, Weiss claims she used a Robert Frost poem recommended by the Treasures website, but got in trouble for not teaching from the Treasures book.
Still, Weiss earned her supporters over the years.
Joanne Thomas, whose daughter was in Weiss' third-year class, says, "Rosa made one of the greatest impressions on her and was vital in sort of shifting my daughter's impression of what a classroom could be like."
She recalls Weiss brought in herbal tea for her students.
"It's a small thing, but when you see the effect it has on your child, I think it just illustrated to us that she didn't look at her students as peons," Thomas says. "They're equal people, and she wanted to have them, you know, become caring adults."
Susan Yanda, a longtime teacher who recently retired from Wood Gormley Elementary, calls Weiss a close friend. Yanda says she invited Weiss into her classroom once to work with students on a collage about kindness. Weiss was "phenomenal," Yanda says, connecting with students about "what it meant to bully, what it meant to call somebody a name." She was excited to have Weiss back in her classroom to substitute, but says SFPS wouldn't allow it.
Meanwhile, unable to make payments on the house she's lived in for 25 years, Weiss recently put it on the market. She still works two part-time jobs as an estate manager and an accounting clerk. But she's not sure she can get back into teaching, given her age and barriers to applying for her level II teaching license.
Along with extracting a settlement from SFPS for leaving her unable to pay her student loans and "decimation of my character," she says a good outcome of the court battle "would be if teachers, when they sign their third-year contract, were be considered tenured teachers so that they didn't have to put up with this."
"I didn't start out thinking that I was like Norma Rae, you know," she adds. "But that would be fantastic—if teachers had that right to appeal."