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AGO 1950 No. 369 - October 18, 1950
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Smith Troy | 1941-1952 | Attorney General of Washington

SCHOOLS ‑- TEACHER'S SALARY EARNED IN NINE MONTHS ‑- SALARY PAID IN TWELVE INSTALLMENTS ‑- INTERPRETATION OF TEACHERS CONTRACT OF EMPLOYMENT

(1) By virtue of the agreement between Eulah Blackwell and the superintendent of the school, the Eulah Blackwell estate is entitled to the sum of $600.

(2) The above sum should be paid from the appropriation for salaries and wages.

                                                                  - - - - - - - - - - - - -

                                                                October 18, 1950

Honorable H. D. Van Eaton
Director, Department of Public Institutions
Public Lands-Social Security Building
Olympia, Washington                                                                                                              Cite as:  AGO 49-51 No. 369

Attention:  Mr. E. J. Nelson

Dear Sir:

            In your letter of September 14, 1950, you requested our opinion on the validity of the claim of the estate of Eulah Blackwell, a teacher, against the State of Washington, for the sum of $600.  In the event this claim is valid, you have also requested our opinion as to whether this claim should be paid from the salary and wages appropriation for teachers of the school for the deaf, or by special legislative relief.

            Our conclusions may be summarized as follows:

            (1) By virtue of the agreement between Eulah Blackwell and the superintendent of the school, the Eulah Blackwell estate is entitled to the sum of $600.

             [[Orig. Op. Page 2]]

            (2) The above sum should be paid from the appropriation for salaries and wages.

                                                                     ANALYSIS

            Our conclusion is based upon the provisions of the notice of appointment dated July 1, 1949, and the provisions of the acceptance of Eulah S. Blackwell, which we construe to be the contract of employment.  The notice of appointment given by the superintendent of the school for the deaf provided:

            "July 1, 1949, Eulah S. Blackwell ‑ You are hereby appointed as teacher in the Washington State School for the Deaf for the school year 1949-1950 (unless same shall be terminated prior to that time) at a salary of $3,600.00.  (12 months pay basis).  Forty dollars $40.00 per month will be deducted for board and room if you live in the Institution.  The Teacher's time is to be at the disposal of the State School for the Deaf when the press of work or activities demand (his or her) presence.  Virgil W. Epperson, Superintendent, Washington State School for the Deaf."

            Eulah Blackwell's acceptance on a form provided by the superintendent provides:

            "To Virgil W. Epperson, Superintendent, Washington State School for the Deaf ‑ I hereby accept the position as teacher in the Washington State School for the Deaf for the school year 1949-1950 at a salary of $3,600.00 (12 months basis).  It is understood that $40.00 per month will be deducted from my salary if I live in the Institution.  /s/ Eulah S. Blackwell ‑ Return to Superintendent as soon as possible."

            We feel that the above provisions and in particular the words "for the the school year 1949-1950 at a salary of $3,600.00 (12 month basis)" are ambiguous, and allow for at least two interpretations:  First, that the phrase "(12 month  [[Orig. Op. Page 3]] basis)" has reference to "school year" so that a school year was to be coextensive with the calendar year, or, secondly, that "school year" meant just a school year (9 months) and the phrase "(12 month basis)" has reference only to the method of payment or apportioning the salary over a twelve‑month period.  In light of this ambiguity, we feel the agreement must be resolved against the party who prepared it.

            We have no hesitancy in construing the term "school year" to mean that period during which school is in session.  The phrase "school year" has a recognized meaning in the educational field, and when used in an employment contract of a teacher means nine months.  Francis v. Shawnee Mission Rural High School, 161 Kan. 634, 170 P. (2d) 807.  Furthermore, section 2, p. 258, Laws of 1909 (Rem. Rev. Stat. 4646), provides:

            "The regular term of said school shall begin on the second Wednesday of September and will close on the second Wednesday of the following June."

            It must be assumed the agreement was written to conform to the statute above, and as a matter of law the provisions of the statute were part of this agreement.  Faircloth v. Folmar, 252 Ala. 223, 40 So. (2d) 697.

            Thus, since "school year" means only nine months, what is the effect of the insertion "(12 month basis)"?  On this point it is our opinion that the above phrase was not intended to extend the school year to a calendar year, but only had reference to the method of apportioning the teacher's earned salary on a monthly basis.  We were unable to find any authority in Washington construing the agreement in question, but we do find that our conclusion is substantiated by theFrancis case, supra.  In that case a teacher entered into a formal contract of employment also containing the following provision:

            "* * * for one year, that is for the school year, * * * at a salary of $2,345.00 per year, payable monthly in twelve installments * * *".

            The teacher quit after four months and sought to recover the difference between the amount he received for the four months he taught calculated on a twelve‑month basis, and the amount he would have received for those months had his salary been calculated on the basis of a school year of nine months.

             [[Orig. Op. Page 4]]

            The Kansas court held for the teacher on the ground that "school year" meant nine months.  In theFrancis case, supra, the contract stated "payable in twelve installments," which is less ambiguous than the phrase "(12 month basis)," but it is our opinion that the latter phrase was intended to have the same meaning as "payable in twelve installments."

            Furthermore, it is generally recognized that teachers are free to do as they wish with their time during the summer months.  A teacher is not required to remain available for teaching during those months, in fact, it is common knowledge that many of them travel during this time.  In light of this, it cannot in our opinion be said that they are being paid for twelve months' work when, in fact, they are only teaching nine months.

            We do not attach much significance to the phrase "the teacher's time is to be at the disposal of the State School for the Deaf when the press of work or activities demand (his or her) presence" found in the superintendent's notice of appointment.  This statement was not contained in the teacher's acceptance, and further, it, too, is capable of more than one interpretation.  In our opinion, this phrase could just as easily have reference to the nine‑month period as to the whole calendar year.

            On the second question it is our opinion that this sum should come from the salaries and wages appropriation for the school.  As indicated above, we consider Eulah Blackwell as having earned $2400.  Since she was paid only $1800, she has a claim for $600, for unpaid salary, subject to proper deductions, which, having been earned as salary, is within the appropriation for salaries and wages.  This sum is in no sense a gift, but represents a part of her earned salary and may properly be taken from the appropriation for wages and salaries of the school.

            We herein return to your office the file covering the above matter.

Very truly yours,

SMITH TROY
Attorney General

ROBERT L. SIMPSON
Assistant Attorney General

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