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School boards lose power to fire poor teachers

By Scott Reeder, Small Newspaper Group Springfield Bureau
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Ken Swanson, president of the Illinois Education Association.

SPRINGFIELD – For most folks, it is their boss who determines whether or not they are doing good work and should keep their jobs.

To be sure, employment law can be complicated and rarely matches the cartoon image of Mr. Slate screaming, “Flintstone, you’re fired.”

But for most tenured Illinois teachers, that decision has been taken out of the hands of their principal, superintendent or school board. In 875 of Illinois’ 876 school districts, it is left up to a hearing officer to determine whether someone should be fired. An individual school board can only make a recommendation to this hearing officer. (In Chicago Public Schools the school board has the final say, but it almost always defers to an advisory recommendation from a hearing officer.)

This process usually lasts several years and often costs more than $100,000. Although the cases that end up before hearing officers are almost always involving the most serious allegations, the outcome of the case is rarely a certainty.

Over the past 18 years, school districts have prevailed in 65 percent of the cases argued before hearing officers.

The underlying reason these cases are so expensive and difficult to win is because legislators and school boards have agreed to dismissal procedures pushed by unions.

“When you try to fire a bad teacher, it’s all about procedure. Rarely will the union lawyer argue that a particular teacher facing dismissal was good at his or her job. They will argue that not all the procedures were followed correctly,” said T.J. Wilson, a Monticello lawyer who specializes in education employment law.

In other words, a dismissal case is more likely to hinge on a question like whether the evaluation form was filled out correctly than whether “Mr. Smith” taught algebra well.

A case in point would be the 1994 case of Rock Island teacher Randi Barnes, a teacher facing dismissal for alleged poor performance.

The hearing officer ruled she could keep her job because the administrator filling out her evaluation form listed only her weaknesses, but no strengths. State law requires that both be listed.

Indeed, the slightest procedural misstep in evaluating a teacher can result in a problem teacher remaining in the classroom.

Through intense lobbying, the state’s two teacher unions, the Illinois Education Association and Illinois Federation of Teachers, have successfully persuaded legislators to increase the number of procedural protections necessary in dismissal cases.

Additional procedural hurdles are often created when the union negotiates collective bargaining agreements with individual school boards.

Further complicating the situation, are cultural issues unique to schools. Unlike most large businesses or many other public-sector employers, school districts often fail to establish basic frameworks for dealing with a problem employee.

For example, Moline-Coal Valley School District has 1,012 employees. But it has no handbook telling workers what the workplace rules are, Assistant Superintendent Lanty McGuire said.

“If you are going to fire a teacher for breaking the rules you had better have the rules written down somewhere. Even something like showing up for work on time needs to be written down somewhere. Otherwise union lawyers will argue that the teacher was never informed,” Wilson said.

Schools tend to be collegial environments where conflict between faculty members and principals is avoided, contends Dan Lortie, a retired University of Chicago sociologist who has studied the interactions of faculty and administrators.

“In a school no one is clearly in charge,” he said. “Teachers value their independence … Think of a school as a place where there are dozens of individual craftsmen – each working in their own classroom. When I talk to principals, I often hear – ‘I wish I had a better way of surveilling what is going on in individual classrooms.’”

Unions have built loyalty among teachers through aggressively defending teachers, Lortie contends.

“Teachers were an incredibly difficult group for labor unions to organize. Would you be loyal to a union that said, ‘We will defend you – unless you do something that we really don’t like?”

IEA President Ken Swanson said he isn’t troubled that his organization devotes so much of its resources to defending teachers who have been identified by administrators as unfit.

“Everyone is entitled to competent defense,” he said.

“It isn’t tenure itself that makes it hard to fire a teacher. It is the vigorous defense provided by teacher unions, “ said Charles Kerchner, a professor of educational studies at Claremont Graduate University and a national expert on teacher unions and educational organizations.

Scott Reeder can be contacted at 217-525-8201.