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Schools resort to secret buyouts to get rid of teachers

By Scott Reeder, Small Newspaper Group Springfield Bureau
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James Galeski ... resigned for $30,000

SPRINGFIELD – It has become so costly and difficult to fire tenured teachers in Illinois that school districts have resorted to secretly paying people to quit.

In fact, school boards have been defying the Illinois open records laws by promising to keep these hush-hush deals confidential.

For example, five years ago, James Galeski received $30,000 to resign from his teaching post in Valmeyer School District.

Folks in this sleepy southern Illinois community still are perplexed over why this tenured, Ph.D. science teacher left his job.

The state’s largest teacher’s union, the Illinois Education Association, has threatened litigation if the school district attempts to release records documenting purported problems with Galeski, attorneys involved with the matter have said.

But during an interview last month, Sharon Hill, the school superintendent at the time of Galeski’s departure asserted that he:

Shared with students information on bomb making.

Grabbed a teenage girl’s crotch while at school.

Taught in an ineffective manner.

When confronted with these accusations, Galeski said, “They are 99.9 percent bullshit.”

He said school officials wanted him out because he was “tired and burned out” and because he was earning a larger salary than that cash-strapped school system wanted to pay.

For the public, just who is being truthful remains an enigma because the school district has acquiesced to the IEA’s demands to keep the files sealed.

A circuit judge in Sangamon County ordered Valmeyer school district to hand over a copy of the settlement agreement itself to Small Newspaper Group, but the underlying documents which may explain why school officials wanted Galeski out of the classroom remain hidden.

These deals are cut behind closed doors and seldom receive much public scrutiny.

While the agreements are not routine, they are more common than actually firing a tenured teacher, said T.J. Wilson an education labor attorney based in Monticello.

School districts are engaging in these agreements not necessarily because they think they are good public policy but because they are at times a necessary evil, he said.

“It’s a very frustrating situation. You want to be effective. You want to make a difference. You want to make things better for the students and you have someone like this who you cannot fire,” said former Valmeyer Superintendent Sharon Hill.

Superintendent Hill used a law passed as part of the 1985 school reforms in an attempt to improve Galeski’s performance. The process proved to be time-consuming, costly and ultimately less than effective, she said.

Galeski received continual evaluations and mentoring during a full school year.

“He would get better for a couple of days and then he would be back to where he was. Valmeyer was a very small school district and he was essentially the entire science department – I felt bad that the kids weren’t getting a better science education than that,” she said.

For his part, Galeski contends his students performed at or better than the state average.

But the allegations involving a teen-age girl were among the most troubling.

“There was a girl who was maybe 14 or 15 and very pretty. She was very friendly toward everyone. I don’t know if he misinterpreted that friendliness or what. But he grabbed her crotch in front of other students. She was totally humiliated,” Hill said.

School officials notified the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services of the alleged incident, Hill said.

“Nothing ever came of it because the girl’s parents decided not to pursue it. They were afraid of putting their daughter in the spotlight,” Hill said.

Galeski said he met with DCFS officials and the complaint was determined to be unfounded. He said when the female student attempted to write on the back of his bald head, he was startled and his hand jerked back and inadvertently touched her in a private area.

As for the assertion that he told students how to make bombs, he said he merely answered a question posed to him by a student in class about the explosive devices planted in the Oklahoma City bombing and the Columbine High School attack. But he added he did not give step-by-step instructions in bomb making.

The settlement agreement provided that all references to the DCFS investigation would be purged from Galeski’s personnel file.

According to the settlement agreement, other items were also removed from Galeski’s personnel file including:

A memo from his principal about plans to limit Galeski’s internet usage.

Any record of Galeski being placed on remediation.

Negative evaluations of Galeski.

These types of agreements pose a major pitfall for school districts attempting to screen job applicants.

“We have teachers who should be facing judges, but instead are facing classrooms because school boards do this and then the teacher goes on to teach in another school district. The only thing I hope is that the people who cut these deals don’t sleep too well at night,” said Larry Janes, a consultant often retained by school districts in remediation cases, including Galeski’s.

According to data collected by Small Newspaper Group, during the past 18 years an average of only two tenured teachers have been fired each year because of poor performance. An average of five Illinois tenured teachers are fired each year amid allegations of misconduct.

Jim Pflasterer was Galeski’s principal at the time he was granted tenure.

“Science teachers are among the hardest positions to fill. That is the case in any school district. And if you are in a small southern Illinois school district, it is even harder ... Sometimes you have to settle for a warm body to fill a position,” Pflasterer said.

Like most Illinois teacher settlement agreements, written details of the Galeski case are few and far between, in part because of the confidentiality clause signed by school officials.

“It’s cheaper and more effective to just pay teachers to quit than to spend the money on attorneys to fire them. It is far from certain that a school district will succeed when it begins the process of firing a teacher,” Janes said.

He added that lawyers with Illinois’ two major teacher unions routinely request confidentiality as part of these arrangements.

“Almost every settlement agreement that I have been involved with includes one of these gag orders. The only person who benefits is the teacher. It never benefits the school district. But usually the teacher won’t agree to the settlement unless it is included,” Janes said.

But the flip side of this argument is one of government accountability.

“Members of the public have a right to know how their tax dollars are being spent. They have a responsibility to hold public employees and elected officials accountable. If this information is kept secret, they can’t hold them accountable,” said Barbara Mack, an associate professor of journalism and communication at Iowa State University and a practicing First Amendment lawyer.

Mack added the Iowa Legislature has outlawed these types of secret deals.

“There have been legions of governmental entities across the country that have gone through all kinds of convolutions to keep these types of settlement agreements private. But by-and-large the courts have ruled that they are public record,” Scott Sievers, a Springfield media-law attorney, said.

Charlie McBarron, a spokesman for IEA, said personnel issues such as these should be sealed from public view to protect the teacher’s privacy and to make it easier for an agreement to be reached.

But current case law clearly indicates that these agreements are public records, Sievers said.

Even so, school officials across the state routinely promise the records will remain confidential.

For example, in the midst of Galeski’s agreement is this sentence:

“It is understood and agreed that all information regarding the terms of this settlement and this document itself will be kept in the strictest confidence and shall not be disclosed by way of statement, interview, or press release or in any manner to any person or entity.”

These buyouts are far from routine for a number of reasons such as their cost.

But one of the most basic reasons is they are dependent on the teacher choosing to leave voluntarily.

“This mentality that teaching equates to lifetime employment is so pervasive in the profession that it is difficult to convince these teachers that they should resign,” Wilson said. “Often the teachers involved in these cases have emotional or psychiatric problems that hadn’t manifested themselves until later in their careers. They have also typically been teaching for awhile and are resistant to the idea that they are not a good teacher.”

Just how much school districts pay out in these settlement agreements varies greatly.

For example:

In 2002, Kankakee Public Schools agreed to pay more than $93,000 to Beverly Tate, a teacher who resigned from the district in 2002. It has continued to pay for her health insurance. Tate declined to disclose, for the record, why the school district paid her to leave.

In 2001, Mt. Vernon Township High School District paid $73,000 to Ronald Shreve, a teacher accused of sexually harassing students. The money was paid after a state hearing officer ruled against the school district in a dismissal case.

In 1994, Rock Island Public Schools paid Randi Barnes $75,000 to resign after it unsuccessfully sought to have a state hearing officer fire her on grounds of poor performance.

Perhaps one of the greatest ironies to these settlements is that the state’s best teachers do not receive bonuses or pay raises based on their good performance, but those teachers whom school districts have worked the hardest to dismiss receive large end-of-career bonuses.

Chris Kolker, a Belleville attorney, who has represented the Illinois Federation of Teachers in a number of settlement agreements said, “If we are dealing with a teacher, who is not involved in any misconduct, but just received a bad evaluation, we would expect the school district to pay the person at least $50,000.” Scott Reeder can be contacted at 217-525-8201.