Union to ask federal judge to reverse layoffs

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Lawyers for the Chicago Teachers Union will go to federal court
Wednesday morning to ask a judge to issue a temporary injunction reversing the layoffs of about
1,400 teachers and instructional coaches.

Lawyers for the Chicago Teachers Union will go to federal court
Wednesday morning to ask a judge to issue a temporary injunction reversing the layoffs of about
1,400 teachers and instructional coaches.

The union says that Chicago Public Schools must put laid-off teachers into its reassigned teacher pool – giving them 10 months to find a job before their pay ends – or consider them for positions occupied by non-tenured teachers. If the layoffs are found to be illegal, the union could even seek back pay. (The most recent court papers, including a request for a temporary injunction, were filed on Friday; the CTU’s original complaint was filed Aug. 2.)

But it isn’t clear whether a ruling in the case will be handed down by the time school starts in September. “It’s impossible to give any clear time table, except to say that we intend to press the case,” says Tom Geoghegan, a well-known labor lawyer and author who helped prepare the union’s suit. “We think the suit is timely.”

About 1,200 teacher and support staff layoff letters were mailed last week, says Chief Human Capital Officer Alicia Winckler. That brings the total number of layoffs, including teachers, coaches, and support staff, to roughly 2,000.

CPS could receive millions of dollars from the recent federal educator jobs bill. But because the state hasn’t allocated the money yet, officials can’t estimate how many jobs the aid will save.

One legal expert, however, notes that a federal judge may hesitate to intervene in the case because the union could resolve it through other means – for instance, by filing a complaint with the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board. The fact that the union complaint raises state law issues, he says, gives a judge the option to throw it out. He predicts it won’t survive.

The section on layoffs in the teachers’ contract spells out that those who lose their jobs due to turnarounds and declining enrollment are eligible for 10 months of pay, benefits, and priority placement in job openings. However, it doesn’t specifically mention budget layoffs. That’s why the district has been terminating teachers without putting them into the reassigned teacher pool, Winckler says.

 

But if the board isn’t going to give teachers a 10-month period of hiring preference, the union argues, it must “develop something that provides the same due process right to be considered for retention or reassignment.”

For instance, the suit says, tenured teachers should be given a hearing where they can present their qualifications and be considered for preference over teachers who are not tenured.

Several labor law experts say this part of the union’s case has a fighting chance because previous legal decisions consider tenure to be a constitutionally guaranteed property right, which can’t be taken away without due process.

Matt Finkin, a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a labor arbitrator, says one point of contention could be whether tenure applies only within the school or district-wide. (Finkin has not read the suit.)

The contract allows tenured teachers to “bump” those with less seniority, but only within their school and only if they have the right certification to take over the position. (Winckler says that’s why a school might lay off teachers in one subject as it hires others in another area.)

But the contract also gives displaced tenured teachers hiring preference at other schools – which the union could argue is a middle ground between school-based tenure and district-wide tenure.

In the suit, the union also contends that teachers who were fired because they received “unsatisfactory” ratings also deserve a hearing. Under the policy, schools that are experiencing layoffs lose unsatisfactory teachers first, followed by those with the least experience.

But because the process also takes into account a school’s enrollment projections and the certifications of other teachers in the building, only a small number of teachers with low ratings have been fired.

Out of more than 400 teachers laid off in Track E schools, according to a court filing, just 25 had received a performance rating of unsatisfactory. (Click here for a list of the teachers laid off from Track E schools.)

Finkin says the union’s request for hearings is supported by well-treaded legal ground. Union lawyers could also attack the district’s teacher evaluation checklist as biased, subjective, or unreasonable.

Winckler says the district is taking several steps to help the laid-off teachers, including extending their medical benefits for an extra month and inviting them to complete online profiles that can be browsed by principals who are looking to fill jobs.

More than 30 percent of the instructional coaches who were let go in June have found new positions with the district, Winckler says – some in classrooms, some in central office, and some in area offices.

That’s been accomplished partly by sending lists of the coaches to principals who are looking to fill vacancies, Winckler says.

“We have a separate list of National Board certified teachers that we are promoting,” Winckler says. Her office has also been sending around a list of laid-off teachers who received ratings of “superior,” and teachers who have certifications in high-need areas.

A career fair for laid-off teachers at the end of July drew about 350 candidates, Winckler says, for about 100 vacancies. Another such event is coming up at the end of this month.

“We are actively helping people find work,” Winckler says. “We’d love to see our most talented be placed into other open vacant positions across the system.”

 In a declaration filed with the union’s request for an injunction, Chicago Teachers Union Staff Coordinator Jackson Potter says that “hundreds of teachers a day” have called the union asking for help and “communicating their concerns, fears, humiliation, and discontent.”

New York University law professor Richard Epstein says the larger issue is the state’s financial climate, as well as the long-term viability of teacher salaries and pensions.

“There’s a sense in which the lawsuit is basically a last gasp,” Epstein says. “If the union wins, the senior employees will do well for another year before they retire, but it’s going to have devastating consequences on new teachers. The board has financial necessity on its side.”

The last-hired, first-fired layoff provisions in the contract were probably not written with a budget meltdown in mind, he notes. “For each low-level teacher that is let go, the savings are small,” he says.

In the long run, Epstein says, the best solution may be for the state to work out an across-the-board pension reduction that applies to both current teachers and retirees.

It isn’t clear whether such a move would be legal. But, Epstein says, “the more the financial situation becomes acute, the more the legality will come into question. Desperation breeds a lot of legal arguments.