On July 21, Mike Quigley got word that he was being laid off from the south-side public high school where he'd been teaching science for the last eight years.
"My principal called me—it sounded like she was reading from a script," says Quigley (no relation to the congressman of the same name). "She told me my job was being terminated for budget reasons."
What happened to Quigley was possibly a breach of contract—but it wasn't unusual. Over the summer the Chicago Public Schools laid off 1,300 teachers. CEO Ron Huberman explained that the Chicago Teachers Union wouldn't help him out of a budget crisis by giving back the 4 percent raise it had negotiated, so he'd had no choice but to take draconian measures.
Before the summer was over, though, Huberman came up with better news—the teachers could keep their raises. Additional state and federal funds had been located, and between those funds and Huberman's cuts, the budget was balanced. What's more, it wouldn't be necessary to put as many as 37 students in every classroom, which was something CPS had threatened. The teachers laid off because larger classes made them expendable could keep their jobs after all.
But all the other fired teachers, maybe as many as 1,000 of them, stayed fired.
They'd been given various reasons for why they were fired, or as CPS put it, "honorably terminated" or "honorably dismissed." Some, like Megan Ruthaivilavan, a social studies teacher at the same school where Quigley taught, Peace and Education Coalition Alternative High School at 5114 S. Elizabeth, were victims of "redefinition," which meant that their position had been reconfigured somehow and they were no longer considered qualified to fill it. When Ruthaivilavan, studying the CPS job bulletin, spotted an opening for a social studies teacher at Peace and Education, the school was encouraging bilingual applicants.
Other teachers, like Lourdes Guerrero, an art teacher at Von Steuben high school, 5039 N. Kimball, got a letter saying their position was "no longer available" due to a "reallocation of funds."
Or, like Nancy Kirby, a kindergarten teacher at the Cesar Chavez elementary school, 4747 S. Marshfield, they were informed that they were out of a job due to "program reduction."
These justifications all had in one thing in common: they weren't covered by the union contract. This meant they suited Huberman and the Board of Education, which on June 15 passed a resolution giving him the power to circumvent the rights the CTU had negotiated for tenured teachers and give teachers the boot in the name of "cost savings measures implemented to address financial exigencies."
None of these teachers would continue to receive salary and benefits for a year—a protection tenured teachers believe their contract guarantees them. In fact, the teachers' union has filed a suit in federal court challenging the dismissals and asking for their jobs back.
Mike Quigley was merely one laid-off teacher among many. But he's made an important contribution to the generalized mood of fear and loathing among his peers: his experience added a layer of paranoia.
When Quigley lost his job at Peace and Education, he figured he'd land safely at another school—he had lots of contacts in the system, and his teaching ratings had always been high. Sure enough, a friend set him up with an interview at a middle school on the south side, and in July the principal there offered him a position.
But later she called Quigley at home. "She said, 'This isn't working. I can't hire you because you have an unsatisfactory rating.' Then she told me, 'I cannot believe they're doing this to teachers. This happened in another case.'"
It didn't make sense. Principals annually rate teachers as superior, excellent, satisfactory, or unsatisfactory. To Quigley's knowledge, he'd never been rated anything less than excellent.
More important, an unsatisfactory rating alone shouldn't have blacklisted him. It shouldn't have kept him from being hired by another CPS school.
One thing would: a do-not-hire designation, or DNH.
Quigley contacted Sara Echevarria, his union field rep. Echevarria called the central office and asked if it were possible for a principal to change a rating after it had been issued. On August 24 she received an e-mail from Joseph Moriarty, an associate general counsel for the schools.
"I have check [sic] with Employee Services. According to it, Mr. Quigley's rating for 2009-2010 in the system is and always has been 'excellent,'" Moriarty wrote. "It is doubtful that a principal, even if he or she was of a mind to, could change a rating once it's submitted. But in any case, that hasn't happened here."
Echevarria e-mailed back: "Do you know why he's on the DNH list?'"
To which Moriarty responded: "Who said he [Quigley] is on a DNH list? There is no DNH list that I know of. As I showed you in last night's e-mail, [Employee Services] indicated that he is NOT DNH'd. He is eligible to be rehired."
This hairsplitting left Quigley less than comforted. On the one hand, there was no DNH list, and, anyway, he wasn't on it. On the other, what had he been if not DNH'd? A principal had looked up his file and said it showed she couldn't hire him. Information—erroneous information—at the fingertips of every principal in the city had cost him one job and could keep him from ever working again in the Chicago Public Schools. And it was only by happenstance that he'd found out about it.
For Quigley, the story has a happy ending. Through another friend he got an interview at another south-side high school (it's good to have friends), and in August he was hired.
"My heart goes out to all my fellow teachers out there," says Quigley. "They may be on that DNH list and not even know it. No one tells you, so how would you know?"
Quigley told the story of his brush with exile to other teachers, and it spread rapidly through their grapevine, darkening the already grim mood of the laid-off teachers.
They say the story told them this: There may be a do-not-hire list. You may be on it. If you are no one will tell you, but you'll never work at CPS again.
How did CPS decide which teachers to dismiss? By and large, the central office left the decisions to the principals. But what guided their decisions?
We've talked to three principals who said they managed to ride out the crisis without laying off any tenured teachers at all. Other principals—surely most—did their best to carry out a painful assignment honorably and transparently. But teachers we've spoken with, about a dozen, have a theory. They think some principals, emboldened by their newfound authority to circumvent tenure, decided to get rid of any teacher—good or bad—they considered a pain in the ass. Or to create openings they could fill with their favorites. Or to get rid of teachers whose years of service and corresponding salaries cost their schools a lot of money.
Some principals seem to have been gearing up to clean house almost as soon as the school year ended.
Sunny Neater-DuBow, the Multicultural Arts High School teacher we wrote about September 2 in a story about CPS's use of "redefinition," was let go in August. When she e-mailed her old principal and asked if she could at least apply for her "redefined" job, she got no response. Later she found out the school was advertising for someone with her identical qualifications, and that her successor had joined the faculty by July 1.
Likewise, the name of the teacher who replaced Megan Ruthaivilavan at Peace and Freedom shows up on that school's July 1 faculty roster. (Last week CPS posted online all of its employees as of that date, broken down by school.) But the principal, Brigitte Swenson, didn't call Ruthaivilavan and dismiss her until July 21. "She left a voice message, something like 'I have important news to share.' The next day she called again and told me, 'Do you have a minute?' She says my position was terminated due to budget issues, like she was reading a generic letter."
Ruthaivilavan is applying for jobs at other CPS schools with openings. But nobody's called her back and asked her to come in for an interview.
The teachers' contract is very specific about when, how, and why teachers can be laid off. For instance, if the board is "turning around" a low-scoring school it's allowed to lay off teachers, but they must be given a chance to reapply for their old jobs. If they're not hired back, they go into a pool of unassigned teachers who remain salaried for a year with full health benefits. Teachers laid off because enrollment dropped at their school go into the same pool.
But "honorably" dismissed or terminated teachers like Quigley, Ruthaivilavan, Kirby, and Guerrero haven't been invited to apply for their restored or redefined jobs or placed in any pool. They've been let go without salary, benefits, or severance.
Kirby says she's sent her resumé to about 40 schools, mostly within CPS. So far she's finagled one interview, at a CPS high school. She didn't get the job.
Like Neater-DuBow, Kirby is a national board certified teacher—one of the most prestigious designations a teacher can earn. "I received my certification in 2008 at a reception where Mayor Daley and former CEO Arne Duncan spoke," says Kirby. "They thanked us for our hard work and dedication. And now I can't even get a job as a substitute."
Guerrero says she can't get an interview, much less a job. "I've sent out letters to dozens of schools in Chicago—including private ones—and the suburbs," she says. "I got one response—that's it. I'm trying not to get paranoid, but it's hard."
Defending the faculty-reduction process during an interview for the article on Neater-DuBow, CPS's chief human capital officer, Alicia Winckler, said that as far as she was concerned the principals had done a good job of balancing the rights of tenured teachers against educational needs.
But laid-off teachers are wondering how much educational needs had to do with it.
Guerrero, a former member of the Von Steuben local school council, thinks she was punished for voting against her principal, Pedro Alonso, when his contract came up for renewal in February. "I voted my conscience," she says. "But that doesn't mean I wanted to leave Von Steuben. I love my job."
Alonso replies that his decision to lay off Guerrero had nothing to do with the LSC. He says he had to drop 14 teachers but eventually the central office let him hire back 11. "When we had to re-level classes there was no need for her art class," says Alonso. "We have two art classes. We used to have three."
Quigley, who used to be the union delegate at his school, thinks he was punished for having filed a union grievance last year over scheduling issues.
Brigitte Swenson, the principal of Peace and Education school, did not respond to a call for comment.
In this dank, noncommunicative atmosphere, the idea of a do-not-hire designation—and if there's a designation, in some sense mustn't there be a list?—is morbidly compelling.
John Kugler, a member-services coordinator with the teachers' union, says the union had known for years about a DNH classification, but understood it to be reserved for "people who were charged with criminal offenses such as drugs, sexual contact with kids, or theft." By using the DNH tag against teachers whose worst crime might be that they rubbed a principal the wrong way, Kugler thinks CPS could damage reputations and ruin careers.
CPS spokeswoman Monique Bond says "honorably dismissed" teachers have nothing to worry about. "There have been questions whether we are DNHing laid off employees," she wrote in an e-mail. "We are not. Employees who are laid off or 'honorably terminated/dismissed' (i.e. not for cause and without a hearing) are NOT DNH'd even if they have an unsatisfactory evaluation."
Instead, she says, the DNH designation is reserved for "all employees who are dismissed for cause (i.e. for misconduct or for poor performance after a hearing)." And for probationary teachers—teachers without tenure. New teachers are hired for a year at a time, and if twice principals decide not to invite them back, or at any time dismiss them with an unsatisfactory rating, they're designated DNH.
Every CPS teacher begins his or her career with a three-year probationary period, and the teachers' union represents these teachers too. Kugler says the union didn't know some of them were getting tagged DNH.
We've read an anguished letter to the central office from a former probationary teacher who was rated unsatisfactory and fired in his third year. Thanks to the DNH designation, he wrote, "I am effectively barred from teaching and inspiring CPS students at every school in the district." He asked Cheryl Colston, the director of labor and employee relations, to remove the designation so he could find work and told her, "I implore you to reconsider the arbitrary use of this status to those teachers who might also face the same circumstances as me." He urged Colston to publish "a clear, fair policy that establishes the grounds for placing such a mark on the records of employees at CPS."
At least he knew what he was up against. Tenured teachers who can't get interviews are left to wonder.
Colston's reply was blunt: "Please be advised that the DNH was placed on your file because of your unsatisfactory teaching performance. We have reviewed your file and unfortunately your request cannot be honored.
"We wish you luck in your future endeavors."
Meanwhile, the union's lawsuit challenging the layoffs has come before U.S. District Court judge David Coar, who could order Huberman to rescind the terminations of the tenured teachers. Trying to find a middle ground, he might order them into the pool of unassigned teachers due a year's salary and benefits. There might be an appeal, but in the end either decision could cost CPS millions of dollars. Or Coar could rule against the union—which would effectively end tenure in the Chicago Public Schools.
This fight is playing out in the context of an ongoing national debate about teacher accountability, with everyone from President Obama to the editors of the Chicago Tribune clamoring for teachers' unions to water down tenure so that schools can shake out bad teachers.
But Huberman's done more than give himself a free hand to cull the losers. He's made getting fired capricious, mysterious, and possibly—for all teachers can tell—vengeful. "We're on edge and living in fear," says Neater-DuBow. "You never know if you'll be next to go."
Instilling fear and paranoia in teachers: it's an interesting experiment in public education.
Well, Mayor Daley and his CPS appointees have tried everything else, right?
Ben Joravsky discusses his reporting weekly with journalist Dave Glowacz at mrradio.org/theworks.