'Honorable' Discharges Provoke Suit Against Chicago

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School officials call the terminations "honorable," but the label isn't soothing feelings for a group of teachers suing the district for laying them off.

Time ran out late last month for the 138 educators who had failed to find new jobs in the district by the end of a grace period allowed by the school system. The group includes about 35 teachers who lost their positions two years ago when the district "reconstituted" seven high schools, a last-ditch effort to turn around a school by replacing its staff. The rest saw their previous posts eliminated because of changes in personnel needs.

Under a new policy adopted after the district came under mayoral control in 1995, the laid-off teachers were given 10 months, instead of the traditional 20, to apply for jobs at other Chicago public schools. During that time, they collected their regular salaries and worked as substitutes. After that, they were told they would be "honorably terminated."

But in a lawsuit filed this month in a Chicago federal court, eight of the teachers and the Chicago Teachers Union argue that the district denied them due process. The plaintiffs failed to win a restraining order to keep the system from dismissing them. The judge assigned to the case may make a final decision on the firings by the end of this month.

Teachers Felt Tainted

Union officials say the teachers from reconstituted schools felt tainted as they looked for new jobs, even though the district did not blame the individuals for their schools' dysfunctions. And the district should have done more to help all the teachers find new positions, union officials argue.

"At the same time they were sending out these letters of dismissal, [schools chief Paul G. Vallas] was talking about a shortage of teachers," said Jackie Gallagher, a spokeswoman for the American Federation of Teachers affiliate. "It looks suspiciously like they're willing to have substitutes teach our children because they are in effect cheaper than experienced teachers."

But the administration of the 430,000-student district maintains it bent over backwards for the employees. The 10-month grace period was extended three times before expiring, and during that time, the educators had one day off a week, with pay, to look for jobs.

Cozette Buckney, the system's chief education officer, pointed out that about 150 teachers from reconstituted schools did wind up getting hired at other schools. The district employs 27,000 teachers.

"We don't take this lightly, but we're talking about 138 teachers with an average salary of $50,000--money that could go into classrooms," she said. "We simply cannot afford to hold on to teachers when no one has picked them."

Despite the legal action the union is taking, CTU officials said relations with the current administration remain good. A smooth negotiating process last fall ended with a new teachers' contract. ("Chicago Contract Revises Accountability Program," Dec. 9, 1998.)

"We don't mean this as a criticism of the people, of Paul Vallas, or the board members, or the mayor," Ms. Gallagher said. "It is of the whole process that was established. It's not like we're suddenly enemies."

Vol. 18, Issue 21, Page 3

Published in Print: February 3, 1999, as 'Honorable' Discharges Provoke Suit Against Chicago
Related Stories
Web Resources
  • The Fall 1998 edition of Rethinking Schools focuses on reconstitution. The issue includes: "Reconstituting Jefferson," the story of a teacher's experience with being fired as a result of reconstituting the "failing school" in which she was employed.
  • Also, "Reconstitution Trend Cools," a Rethinking Schools Fall 1998 review of an article from Catalyst, a publication that covers Chicago reforms, that declares the end of union control over school systems is approaching.
  • The Summer 1998 issue of Rethinking Schools asks "What Will Be the Future of Teacher Unionism?" Rethinking Schools is a nonprofit, independent publisher of educational materials that advocates the reform of elementary and secondary education, with a strong emphasis on issues of equity and social justice.
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