ONE MIGHT HAVE expected Mystic Valley Regional Charter School to throw Matt Kowalski a goodbye party after seven years as a dedicated social studies teacher at the Malden school. Instead, they sent him a bill.
In a heavy-handed move that appears to be unique among Massachusetts charter schools, Mystic Valley includes in its teachers’ contract a provision that makes teachers liable for “liquidated damages” if they leave while under contract. In a letter sent to Kowalski in July, the school sought payment of $6,087.
Kowalski started teaching at the school in 2009 after three years teaching at Catholic schools. Last spring, with three young children and a fourth on the way, Kowalski says he was exploring other teaching options closer to his home in Norwood. By the end of April, he said, the school “basically gave me an ultimatum” to sign a contract for the next school year, which begins August 1, or give up his social studies teaching post.
With no other job lined up, Kowalski said he felt he had no choice but to sign a contract on April 29 for another year at the school.
Within weeks, however, Kowalksi said he had a job offer from the Walpole school system, which would be a much better situation for him and for his family. He said he notified the Mystic Valley administration on May 20. “They were pleasant,” he said. “There was no indication they would be coming after me for damages.”
Kowalksi said he continued to work hard at his job and dutifully finished the school year. What’s more, he said, the school was able to hire a replacement teacher before the school year ended, someone he met with and helped train. “I gave her all my files,” he says.
“I was floored. I couldn’t believe it,” he said of the school’s demand that he then pay what amounts to 10 percent of the salary he was earning.
Kowalksi said the liquidated damages provision only appeared in the Mystic Valley teachers’ contract during his last two years at the school. “The teachers talked about it and we all assumed it was illegal,” he said.
The contract states: “It is understood that the School will spend considerable time and expense training and preparing Employee and that finding a suitable replacement during the school year would also involve a considerable expense.”
Kowalski said the school found a replacement teacher easily, and none of the changeover occurred during the midst of a school year.
After he was hired by the Walpole district, Kowalski contacted the Massachusetts Teachers Association, which has taken up his case. In an August 24 letter to Martin Trice, the executive director of the Mystic Valley school, Alan Shapiro, a lawyer hired by the MTA to handle the case, wrote that the school’s effort to collect damages “borders on the unconscionable.”
Shapiro pointed out that, although Kowalksi signed the contract in April, Trice did not sign the document until June 3, more than two weeks after Kowalski notified the school he would not return for the 2016-17 school year. He also pointed out that while the contract said damages may be collected if a teacher “terminates employment before the end of the school year,” the school year had not even begun when Kowalski informed Mystic Valley he was leaving.
Shapiro’s letter said that Kowalksi owes no money to the school and “will be forced to consider further legal action” if the school “persists in asserting such specious claims.”
Trice did not return repeated messages. The chairman of the school’s board of trustees, Neil Kinnon, also did not return a message.
Kowalksi said he had not heard anything from the school since the August letter sent by the MTA lawyer to the Mystic Valley executive director. He said he has no intentions of paying the school.
The Massachusetts Teachers Association said it knows of two other former teachers at Mystic Valley from whom the school is seeking to collect “liquidated damages.”
The contract language appears to be unique among the state’s charter schools. “We do not know of any other charter school that has that type of provision in their teacher contract,” said Dom Slowey, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association. Mystic Valley is the only Massachusetts charter school that is not a member of the statewide association.
The Mystic Valley contract also includes what amounts to a non-compete clause, specifically forbidding teachers from leaving the school during their contract for a job at public or private schools in the six surrounding communities that make up the “sending school districts” that the school draws from.
The school has regularly received national recognition for its high student achievement, but its operations have also stirred considerable controversy. In 2013, state education commissioner Mitchell Chester put a set of conditions on the school’s charter and denied its request at that time to expand, citing concerns about its governance, including undue involvement of the school’s board of trustees in the day-to-day operations of the school.
An outside review commissioned by the state reported in 2013 that the “board of trustees appears to have convened executive sessions that may not comply with the requirements of the state’s open meeting law, and some board committees may not have prepared meeting minutes as required by the open meeting law.”
Earlier this year, the state approved the school’s expansion plans, but a Boston Globe story in July reported that the board chairman subsequently resigned, citing some of the same governance concerns flagged earlier by state education officials.