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Fighting for the right to fire bad teachers—and good ones too

The story of the UNO charter school teacher dismissed despite doing his job with "dignity"

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Corral pleaded his case. Yes, he'd stepped into his office. But it had only been for about two minutes. Even if he'd remained in the gym, he wouldn't know what was happening in the locker room because the students weren't screaming. He couldn't "supervise" the boys' locker room without leaving the students who'd already gotten dressed and come back into the gym. And he couldn't supervise the girls' locker room at all.

In short, he was fired for not doing what couldn't be done. "It's physically impossible to be in the boys' locker room, the girls' locker room, and the gym at the same time," he says.

But the decision was final, McCarry told him. Security guards escorted Corral out of the building as students, parents, and other teachers watched.

Within a few months he hired a lawyer, Elaine Siegel, and on June 2, 2010, he filed a suit claiming he'd been fired "for reporting suspected child abuse." He asked for back pay plus damages. The case has been dragging on in federal court ever since.

But some illuminating details have surfaced in discovery. Siegel got a copy of an e-mail in which McCarry said she'd notified Rangel of the locker room incident two days after it happened, when she'd finally tracked him down in Cancun on Thanksgiving. "Juan is ready to fire the gym teacher," McCarry wrote. In other words, Rangel dismissed Corral without hearing his side of the story, then or since.

During a deposition, Siegel asked Rangel why Corral had been terminated for not doing what he couldn't do. "If somebody set up classes so that it was physically impossible for the students to be under direct supervision at all times, is that a violation of UNO policy?"

"Like a teacher going into their office to do attendance?" Rangel responded.

"No, like a teacher not being in two locker rooms at the same time?"

"While they're in their office taking attendance, I think that would be a violation of UNO policy," Rangel said. "They're not supervising the children, they're doing something else."

Corral says Rangel used him as a "scapegoat" to send a message to the staff. "I believe Rangel fired me because the police came to school and took those kids in handcuffs," says Corral. "That was an embarrassment—someone had to pay."

Rangel did not respond to a request for comment.

Had Corral been a unionized teacher in a regular public school, he couldn't have been summarily fired without an official investigation in which he could testify. In fact, one reason the union struck was to protect teachers like Corral, who claim autocratic bosses have unjustly punished them.

But UNO, like most charters in Chicago, is nonunion, though it receives more than $30 million a year in public funds. As such, its teachers are at-will employees, who can be fired "at any time for any legal reason or for no reason, with or without prior notice," as Corral's contract stipulates.

As I said, UNO's one of Mayor Emanuel's favorite charter school networks—they have 13 branches throughout the city, including two that opened this year. Rangel supported Emanuel in the 2011 mayoral election. The mayor appointed Rangel to the Public Building Commission, which doles out the money for publicly funded construction projects, like new schools. As a matter of fact, Mayor Emanuel and Governor Pat Quinn showed up when UNO opened its latest publicly financed school in the northwest side's Galewood neighborhood. Rangel won the zoning approval even in the face of community opposition.

As he hands out more contracts to nonunion charters, Mayor Emanuel also vows to replace "bad" teachers with "good" ones.

Let's hope he knows which one's which.

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