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Firing Mr. Roth: $400,000 and counting

By Scott Reeder, Small Newspaper Group Springfield Bureau
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Photo: Terry Herbig
Cecil Roth leaves the Rock Island County Court House after being found guilty of contempt of court.

GENESEO – Instead of instructing seventh-graders in algebra, fired teacher Cecil Roth has used the court system in a way that has subtracted money from his former employer, divided a community and multiplied administrators’ headaches.

Taxpayers in this rural, western Illinois school district have counted their way past $400,000 in lawyer fees. And that number continues to climb.

The Roth case illustrates why administrators are reluctant to attempt to fire tenured teachers. In fact, Roth was one of only two Illinois tenured teachers – from outside the city of Chicago -- to have their dismissal approved by a state hearing officer in the last five years on grounds of alleged incompetence.

This wasn’t what Illinois lawmakers had in mind 20 years ago when they passed an education reform package.

The measure mandated an elaborate system of evaluating every public school teacher in the state. It also created a remediation system in which underperforming teachers could either be coached into improvement or, failing that, fired.

On average since the evaluation system was implemented only two tenured Illinois teachers are fired each year for poor classroom performance.

“Only two tenured teachers are getting fired a year in the entire state? Hell, there probably isn’t a school district in the state that doesn’t have at least two people who shouldn’t be there,” said former Illinois Superintendent of Schools Robert Leininger.

As a senior official at the Illinois State Board of Education, Leininger was a key player in the creation of the legislation and later, as state superintendent, he helped implement some of its mandates.

But today the retired career educator gives the reform legislation failing marks.

The Roth case illustrates much of what is wrong with the system.

He worked for the district for 20 years. Until the year of his dismissal, Roth routinely received positive evaluations.

According to attorneys who have handled termination cases for school districts this is not unusual. In fact, teacher evaluations often have something of a gutless quality to them.

“An absolutely scathing evaluation might say something like, ‘Mary could improve at…’ These evaluations are written very diplomatically,” said T.J. Wilson, a Monticello lawyer specializing in education labor law.

“What often happens is a problem teacher will receive ‘excellent’ evaluations year after year and then suddenly a new principal comes onboard and says, “Hey, wait a minute.”’

In Roth’s case, the poor evaluations came in 1998 after two arguments with administrators. In hindsight the underlying issues of the arguments are relatively minor workplace issues – a scheduling problem for the tennis team Roth coached and a request for more pay for being a math club advisor.

But Roth said the encounters along with an unsubstantiated allegation of sexual harassment from a female athlete were watershed events marking the beginning of the school district’s efforts to show him the door.

The Geneseo School District ordered Roth to undergo drug tests and be evaluated by mental health professionals. He complied with the orders and no drug use or psychiatric problems were found, he said.

“The doctors just said I was stubborn,” Roth, 60, said during an interview at a Geneseo doughnut shop.

Even when the school district began its efforts to document his perceived weaknesses, it was done in highly diplomatic language. For example, administrator Joni Swanson said this in her evaluation of Roth, “We have seen no evidence to suggest that Mr. Roth has done anything to promote or contribute to a positive school climate and rather isolates himself from staff and students.”

Former student Tom Rash put it a little more succinctly, “He has a God complex. It’s like he was saying -- I am who I am and if you don’t like it ‘tough cookies.’”

Rash, who now is in his late 30s, remembers Roth as the worst teacher he had during his 13 years in Geneseo public schools.

But despite such criticism, Roth remains steadfast that he will return to the classroom.

His stubbornness is now in full display. Five years after the school board voted to fire him, he is still fighting its decision in court. Despite failing to win a case, Roth has repeatedly sued his former employer.

They said it...
photo Gary Koeller, Moline High School principal: “There are three outcomes that can happen when a teacher is put in remediation – he can get better, quit or fight. The last one is the one you just don’t want to happen – it’s so expensive.”

In a criminal contempt order, Circuit Judge Mark VandeWiele characterized Roth’s efforts this way, “Roth is engaging in litigation terrorism. He is attempting to hijack the court system and use litigation before the court to advance his own personal agenda and call attention to himself and his cause. His ultimate goal is winning his job back or a large financial settlement … .

Roth, a Lutheran, contends he is the victim of a Catholic conspiracy.

“The students who complained about me are Catholic. The administrators who came after me are Catholic. The judges around here are Catholic. … It is part of the Catholic beliefs that they should help one another.”

He even fired his union-provided attorney – Irving Friedman -- because he thought he might be part of a conspiracy.

“He wasn’t Catholic, but the person with the union who hired him was,” Roth explained.

Since then, he has represented himself in court. Earlier this year, he was sentenced to 60 days in jail for contempt. He was recently released from the Henry County Jail on a second criminal contempt charge.

Mr. Roth was sentenced in August to six months in jail for contempt of court. because he repeatedly violated court rulings to stop filing motions related to his civil lawsuits against the Geneseo school district. He was released early from jail in November.

“Roth mistakenly believes if he gets a ‘non-Catholic’ judge he will start to win motions, the past sanctions will be vacated and his case reinstated. He conveniently overlooks the fact that most of his pleadings and arguments are frivolous,” VandeWiele said in his order.

Another judge, Alan Blackwood, was even more harsh, “His pleadings seek to vilify rather than state facts,” he said. “Instead of being concise, they are rambling gibberish, filed with outlandish and preposterous accusations and conclusions

Nonetheless, the school district retains an attorney to respond to each motion Roth drafts.

Those motions are drafted in his basement on a ping-pong table he has converted into a desk. News clippings of his legal battles are taped to the basement walls.

Rummaging through a stack of documents scattered across the table, Roth speaks of his hoped-for victory with the confidence of an Olympic gold medalist starting a race.

“I’ll fight this all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court if they let me,” he said. “Someday, I’ll have my job back.”

But for some the Roth case is emblematic of a flawed system of teacher dismissal. When the system of teacher remediation was created 20 years ago it was envisioned as a way of weeding out incompetence.

The reality is much different. It has proven to be a seldom used and often ineffective tool.

“There are three outcomes that can happen when a teacher is put in remediation – he can get better, quit or fight,” Moline High School Principal Gary Koeller said. “The last one is the one you just don’t want to happen – it’s so expensive.”

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