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High cost of firing teachers deters action by schools

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.

SPRINGFIELD – Based on his past evaluations, a casual observer might think that Cecil Roth was destined to be a teaching superstar rather than the employee the school district would pay its lawyers more than $400,000 to fire.

Usually, employee evaluations are tucked away in school personnel files and sealed from public inspection.

But Roth, a former Geneseo math teacher who has been jailed twice on criminal contempt charges -- for filing frivolous lawsuits against his former employer -- agreed to provide his entire personnel file to Small Newspaper Group.

Because of the enormous legal costs and uncertain outcome, most school districts refrain from even trying to fire an underperforming tenured teacher.

In fact, Roth is the only Illinois tenured teacher outside the city of Chicago to be fired for poor performance in the last six years. (State law gives the Chicago Board of Education more power to dismiss teachers than the other 875 Illinois school districts.)

Given this distinction, one might think his evaluations over the 20 years he was in the classroom would be littered with warnings and complaints from administrators.

One would be wrong.

While occasionally the evaluations written by former principal Gary ZumMallen hint at problems, his scores over his first 18 years of employment were consistently excellent.

“School administrators will give these positive evaluations just hoping that the teacher will improve. They rarely do,” said Edwin Bridges, a retired Stanford University professor who wrote the book, “The Incompetent Teacher: Managerial Responses.”

In fact, one of the biggest obstacles to removing poor performing teachers are years of evaluations that do not reflect the depth of the instructor’s shortcomings.

“Whenever an administrator tells me they have someone they want to fire. I always say, ‘And what kind of evaluations has this teacher been given over the years?’ Without fail, they always give me this blank look and say, ‘What difference does that make?’” said T.J. Wilson, an education law attorney based in Monticello.

The difference that it makes is that the school district will have to show to a labor arbitrator how an employee, who has received good marks for years, suddenly became “incompetent.”

Union leaders, administrators and teachers themselves readily admit that many people are not well suited for careers in education.

But this rhetoric is not reflected in the reality of evaluations.

Data gathered from each of Illinois’ 876 school districts by Small Newspaper Group shows that of the state’s 95,500 tenured teachers, an average of only 51 received “unsatisfactory” ratings each year over the past decade.

Ken Swanson, president of the state’s largest teacher union the Illinois Education Association, calls this evidence of the high level performance by Illinois teachers.

But critics contend it is evidence that school districts are unwilling -- or unable – to address underperformance problems.

“It’s no secret who these people are in a school. In fact, usually their problems are known throughout the community,” professor Bridges said. “But still they are tolerated. I like to call teachers like this – ‘The Local Legends.’”

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