S.C. school district responds to teacher’s lawsuit for out-of-pocket classroom costs, unpaid work

Updated: Aug. 20, 2019 at 6:52 PM EDT
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GAFFNEY, S.C. (WIS) - On Tuesday, the Cherokee County School District responded to a lawsuit brought by a former teacher.

The teacher, Shannon Burgess, claims the district broke state and federal laws by requiring her to pay for school supplies out of her own pocket and work for free at school-related events.

In a statement, the district indicated it could not comment on the specific allegations, but insists it followed all applicable laws referenced in the lawsuit. Officials also thanked their teachers for their dedication and willingness to “go the extra mile” for their students and community.

The lawsuit, filed by Burgess, is open for other teachers in the district, and around the state, to join the class action.

Burgess’ attorney, John Reckenbeil, said he has heard from approximately 20 other teachers with similar complaints since filing the lawsuit on behalf of his client.

“They were trying to put operational costs on the backs of teachers,” he said. “That’s what made me really dive in and look at this case as a bigger issue as opposed to just an individual case.”

He added: “I’ve already had people reach out to me, some teachers that are buying necessary supplies for students to meet their core curriculum requirements."

Reckenbeil said the case is still in the early stages, but the litigation could reach class-action status in approximately three to four months.

In the lawsuit, Burgess makes a total of five claims, four of which are open for other teachers to join:

  1. She, and others, were forced to work at after school sporting events selling concessions to profit the school without being paid.
  2. The district refused to pay her and her colleagues overtime for that work, which violates FLSA.
  3. The district refused to pay her and her colleagues at all for that work, which violates PWA.
  4. She, and others, are forced to buy school supplies and auction items, both of which benefit the school, with their own money.
  5. While on medical leave, she was required to work by providing daily lesson plans for students, violating the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).

The lawsuit names the Cherokee County School District, its board of trustees, its office of the superintendent, and Granard Middle School Principal Gavin Fisher as defendants.

The lawsuit says Cherokee County teachers are forced to staff concession stands at after school sporting events without pay. Calling the work non-academic, the suit claims teachers should be paid hourly for that time, separate from their teacher salaries.

“Defendants require Teachers, for no additional compensation, to work additional hours outside the boundaries of the reasonable educational functions directly related to academic instructions or training, and outside the normal hours of classroom teaching,” the lawsuit claims.

The school district has a policy in place claiming teachers are exempt because they are salaried employees, according to the lawsuit.

“When you have a contract for a teacher to teach – it must be in the environment of an educational establishment,” Reckenbeil argued.

The lawsuit seeks to change the practice of teachers buying necessary supplies for their classrooms with money from their own pockets.

“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 classrooms directly on the financial backs of our Teachers,” the lawsuit reads.

It claims there is a budget for supplies and materials, but teachers are required to buy additional items with money from their salaries.

Also, the teacher claims her principal required all teachers to purchase a gift basket for a school raffle benefiting the Parent Teacher Organization.

“Principal Fisher would constantly hound each teacher to get the Gift Basket turned in for the auction” and kept a list of those who had not yet turned in a basket, the lawsuit claims.

For those in the class action claims, the lawsuit seeks unpaid wages for teachers, restitution for items purchased by teachers to benefit the school, damages and attorneys’ fees.

“I see this as really a first step of giving the opportunity for teachers to stand up for themselves and say, ‘at least pay us what you promised to pay us and don’t put operational costs on our backs,’” Reckenbeil said.

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