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Cost to fire a tenured teacher? More than $219,000

By Scott Reeder, sreeder@qconline.com

SPRINGFIELD -- Not only is it exceedingly rare to fire a tenured teacher in Illinois, but it also is extraordinarily expensive.

In fact, Illinois school districts that have hired outside lawyers in these cases have spent an average of more than $219,000 in legal fees during the last five years.

In a follow-up to its award-winning investigation of teacher tenure in Illinois, Small Newspaper Group took an in-depth look at costs associated with teacher dismissals.

In the original series, which was published in December, the newspapers said school districts reasonably could expect to spend at least $100,000 to try to fire a tenured teacher.

That figure, which was based on attorney estimates, was immediately called into question by one the state's two major teacher unions, the Illinois Federation of Teachers, which contends such cases usually cost school districts less than $50,000.

To settle the question, Small Newspaper Group filed Freedom of Information Act requests for every attorney bill paid by a school district in a tenured teacher dismissal case during the last five years.

Those bills indicate schools districts have spent an average of $219,504.21 in legal fees for dismissal cases and related litigation from the beginning of 2001 until the end of 2005.

As staggering as that number is, it actually understates the ultimate cost of these lawsuits because 44 percent of these cases are still on appeal and the lawyer bills continue to grow.

Cost is a major reason cited by school officials for not trying to dismiss underperforming teachers, said T.J. Wilson, a Monticello attorney specializing in education labor law.

"When I sit down with school administrators who want to fire someone, I tell them to plan on spending at least $100,000 in attorney fees and that they still may lose," Mr. Wilson said. "Those administrators are sitting there thinking three new teachers could be hired for the cost of firing one bad one.

"There is always the possibility that the school district may have to cut some program that benefits children, just to pay for the cost of firing a teacher. This is the biggest reason school districts do not try to fire bad teachers."

In fact, in the last 18 years, 93 percent of Illinois school districts have never attempted to fire anyone with tenure, according to data tabulated from records at the Illinois State Board of Education.

While it would be nice to believe the reason is because no one deserved dismissal, commonsense would indicate that no work force in any field is that good, said Jeff Mays of the Illinois Business Roundtable, a business group that has called for education reform.

"Just about anyone who has gone to school or sent their kids to school knows there are some bad teachers out there -- as well as some good ones," he said.

The IFT has said one reason so few tenured teachers are fired is because some are "counseled out" of the profession. But it provides no data to back up this assertion.

Evaluation data collected from each of the state's 876 school districts shows that 83 percent of the state's school districts have never given any tenured teacher an unsatisfactory job evaluation in the last decade.

If only one out of 930 tenured teachers is rated unsatisfactory, it begs the question of when these people are "counseled out" of teaching -- before or after the positive evaluation, Mr. Mays said.

The data gathered in the most recent investigation only includes cases in which school districts retained a lawyer. It does not include cases in which school districts used a lawyer on its staff.

But only about five Illinois school districts have in-house lawyers, noted Melinda Selbee, general counsel for the Illinois Association of School Boards. So the data collected in the most recent investigation should reflect what the anticipated legal costs would be for the 870, or so, school districts without staff lawyers.

IFT spokesman Dave Comerford has publicly contended it is not necessary for school districts to hire lawyers for these cases. But Ms. Selbee disagreed.

"I would never, ever advise a school district to try to go through one of these hearings without an attorney. There are complicated legal, constitutional and procedural issues involved. In fact, I don't think legally someone other than an attorney can represent a school district in one of these cases. After all, that is practicing law," Ms. Selbee said.

Her contention was shared by James Grogan, chief legal counsel for the Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission, a branch of the Illinois Supreme Court, which regulates the legal profession in Illinois.

"In general, if a person is representing a governmental entity or a corporation before a hearing officer or some other tribunal they have to be a lawyer," he said. "Making arguments, cross-examining witnesses and other things that happen in hearings is clearly 'practicing law.'"

Although Mr. Comerford said it is not necessary for school districts to retain lawyers in dismissal cases, his union routinely hires lawyers to represent its own members in these proceedings.