By Paula Coulahan
I’m a little old to re-read “What Color is Your Parachute?” I made a major career change at 40, when I left public relations and earned a master’s degree in elementary education. I entered Education, a post-9/11 attempt to do something more, after I found I enjoyed teaching adults with reading disabilities. I entered with a strong sense of purpose because, as Phyllis Hunter, a member of the board of The National Institute for Literacy said, “It takes a literate workforce to support a democracy.”
So, I don’t tell the following story lightly. It is a story of a lack of fairness and justice. It is an example of what can happen when a governing body fails a community and the community fails to take those who govern to task. And, sadly, it points to a trend, not just in Rockford and not just in education, to devalue unions and break their membership.
I taught in the Rockford Public Schools for four years. A Rockford native, I taught in the manufacturing neighborhood I grew up in and understood the needs of the children. I brought years of experience in journalism, public relations, and local politics to my classroom. I recruited dedicated parent volunteers who moved up with my class when I changed grade levels. With excellent reviews, I was about to receive “tenure.”
Then, the Rockford Board osuperintendent. She began her tenure by taking police officers out of the schools, taking the teeth out of the discipline code, convincing the board to spend $5.5 million on consulting services to overhaul curriculum, and firing several building principals. About this time, an Auburn High School student was arrested for bringing a loaded .32-caliber handgun to school and wearing a bulletproof vest. Perhaps removing the officers was a bad idea after all. But the community did not take the Board to task.
The teachers-union, the REA, voted to take a one-year contract extension, and Sheffield gave Molly Phalen, REA president, “her word” that if she made staff cuts, she would not cut people with three and four years of service. Remember, most of the four-year people were up for tenure. Then, Sheffield turned around and fired everyone with four years of service or less, Title I Reading Specialists, and some administrators. You have to have guts to cross Molly Phalen. But, again, the community did not take the board to task.
The administration made it clear, in a sound bite, that their reasons were not fiscal. They didn’t want to “get stuck with” tenured teachers who were not up to their standards. There was a protracted process for reapplying for jobs and getting them back: portfolios, essays, interviews. Building principals scrambled to get their own staff members back, but in the fallout, there were not enough positions. Former administrators and some reading Specialists with more than 30 years in the district-filled classroom positions, filing successful grievances with the REA to secure their jobs. And who could blame the REA for granting the grievances? They were playing by the rules.
So, remember, this isn’t just my story. It could be anyone’s. Talk to political candidates in general this election year, and in 2012. Ask what they have done for education and educators. Ask if they have the interests of their own community in mind. Ask if they understand the role of unions in preserving the middle class and protecting the disenfranchised. Ask if they mind seeing America sold out, because that is what is happening. The Rockford Public Schools debacle is just a small piece of the pie.
Paula Coulahan is a former Rockford teacher caught in the last rounds of cuts.
From the Aug. 25-31, 2010 issue