Fired Auburn teachers fighting back

There’s no connection between the termination of six white, male Auburn teachers and the suspension of Auburn High School Principal Janice Hawkins, Rockford Public Schools Superintendent Dennis Thompson said.

Thompson stressed Hawkins’ suspension and the firings of nearly-tenured Mark Sterling, Matt Theisen, Ken Griswold, Tim Burel, Jeff Waggoner and first-year teacher Brett Koplin, in March were unrelated matters. Sterling disagreed with Thompson’s assertion: “I don’t know why he’d say that.”

Sterling, Theisen and Koplin are alleging discrimination. They’ve initiated contact with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

While confirming Hawkins was put on administrative leave—thus, discussing a personnel issue publicly—Thompson refused to go on record about exactly why Hawkins had been reprimanded.

Hawkins wouldn’t elaborate, either: “I’ve been advised not to comment at this time,” she said. But she said she would speak later.

Sterling, Theisen, Koplin, Griswold and Burel were terminated in March after receiving unsatisfactory reviews during each teacher’s one and only performance that school year—when all but Waggoner refused to resign. He’s since left the state.

National Education Association Uniserv Director Sandra Meyers said Rockford Public Schools’ teacher contract requires non-tenured teachers be given two reviews—one in the fall and another in the spring.

Meyers said grievances were filed on their behalf, which she said were prompted by “procedural errors…significant procedural errors.” Each teacher won parts of his grievance, but those victories didn’t protect their jobs.

The grievance process has no impact on its conclusion, Meyers said. She also noted the vulnerability of non-tenured staff: “The level of cause is very, very low for a [non] four-year teacher.”

She confirmed that Koplin admitted he’d missed 24 days during his first year.

Meyers said he only had 12 sick days. According to the grievance decision letter dated May 26, he (Koplin) was allegedly absent from Feb. 7 through March 1.

That letter outlined Koplin’s alleged performance problems: “(Hawkins) testified that (Koplin) experienced substantial difficulty with his classroom during the time he was present.” But Hawkins reached those conclusions without ever evaluating Koplin. Meyers said, according to grievance hearing testimony, his absence made evaluating him by the March 1 deadline difficult.

Koplin said Hawkins was particularly unhappy with how the first-year teacher was conducting his geometry classes. According to Koplin, he only taught remedial algebra classes.

Comparing Sterling’s evaluations from the 2004-2005 and 2005-2006 school years could leave one a bit confused. Former Auburn Assistant Principal Roger Buswell conducted both evaluations.

Buswell noted, in the 2004-2005 evaluation, Sterling “has established an organized and informative grading process.” Buswell did a 180-degree turn in the 2005-2006 evaluation on that same issue: “The instructor needs to establish an informative grading process…” Sterling went from earning a mark of “highly satisfactory” to “improvement needed.”

The latter evaluation also admonished Sterling’s use of nicknames for students. But the earlier evaluation also states Sterling needs to “align his lesson plans with district and state standards,” its successor states he needs to “develop lesson plans which reflect attention to assessment results.” Buswell couldn’t be reached for comment.

But Sterling’s 2005-2006 evaluation was discarded, according to a grievance decision letter dated May 17. “Reinstatement is not an available remedy. However, the evaluation is to be withdrawn from (Sterling’s) file and destroyed…” He received a letter from the district, dated June 28, regarding the discarded evaluation.

According to that letter, Sterling’s evaluation couldn’t be completed “due to administrative errors or omissions.” The letter states “the lack of an evaluation should not be construed as an adverse reflection on your performance during that semester.”

Meyers said there’s nothing more Rockford Education Association can do. Sterling alleged the school board intended to investigate the matter.

Rockford School District 205 Board President Nancy Kalchbrenner said, in a July 16 e-mail, she recalled the board was aware of the EEOC filing and stating “the usual procedures in that situation would be followed.”

Board member Michael Williams said he was unaware of any board-led investigation: “If there’s a personnel investigation going on, I’m not involved,” he said. According to Williams, District 205 Attorney Stephen Katz expressed the board’s position. Katz drafted the grievance letters.

From the July 19-25, 2006, issue

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