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It will be spring 2014 before Utahns get a look at new disciplinary guidelines being proposed for teachers who get into trouble.
In the latest twist in a lengthy and divisive debate, the state Board of Education learned Friday that a task force it created in January to examine teacher-misconduct issues has gathered bids from outside lawyers for a $15,000 contract to write the new guidelines.
Task force chairman Dave Crandall said the bids will be screened next week in hopes of awarding the contract, which gives the winner three months to do its review and report back. The lawyers chosen will also study procedures used by the state licensing panel that investigates teacher misconduct, the Utah Professional Practices Advisory Commission, or UPPAC.
Key board members have been at odds with UPPAC and its staff for months, repeatedly questioning licensing sanctions that the panel has recommended against teachers accused of a range of misconduct, including sexual improprieties, student boundary violations, fiscal mismanagement and inappropriate drug and alcohol use on school grounds.
In a series of votes in recent months, school board members have rejected UPPAC suggestions on license suspensions and other reprimands for misbehaving teachers as too lenient. That, in turn, has led to calls for formal disciplinary guidelines approved by the school board, instead of a set of internal guidelines UPPAC has used for several years.
The debate comes against a backdrop of several headline-grabbing cases of teachers convicted of sexual activity involving students.
Although Utah reached a 10-year high in 2012 for total investigations opened into teacher misconduct, outgoing board chairwoman Debra Roberts and others noted that educators who get into licensing trouble are a tiny fraction of all the state's teachers.
"Teachers are underpaid, under-appreciated and occasionally accused of things they've never done," board member Dixie Allen said. "The vast majority of them are good people."
Roberts said teacher discipline needed to strike a balance between protecting students and guaranteeing the due-process rights of educators.
As she stepped down after five years as board chairwoman, Roberts said she had pressed for more progress on the new disciplinary guidelines in time for a vote at Friday's meeting "so we could move on," adding that she hoped "accusations and hyperbole against UPPAC can be laid aside."
The board has debated at least three sets of proposed guidelines including one calling for permanent license revocations for any teacher convicted of a felony before opting to seek bids from outside attorneys to write them.
"It is difficult to do," school board member Jennifer Johnson said. "This is something that is a lengthy process."
Johnson, Crandall and other members of the teacher-misconduct task force opened their meeting Thursday on the bidding process to the public after months of discussions held behind closed doors.
Roberts said making Thursday's meeting public "was something I would have encouraged them to do from the beginning." Task force members, meanwhile, have said they closed their monthly meetings in case their discussions veered into personnel matters.
On a related front, state Superintendent Martell Menlove said he was pressing for improvements to a key computer system used to track teacher licensing issues known as CACTUS. Menlove said staffers at the state Office of Education were exploring ways to add information to the system and to expand access across school district boundaries, while also rewriting code to make it easier to use.
"We're working on it," Menlove said.