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Rejecting teacher resignations, Unit 5 tests how Illinois might respond to staffing shortage

Unit 5 administration building
Emily Bollinger
/
WGLT

Unit 5 has invoked a rarely used state statute that allows school districts to reject teacher resignations in certain circumstances.

McLean County's largest district denied four resignations, submitted by special education teachers weeks before the first day of school. Two of the teachers agreed to stay for the 2022-2023 school year.

But for two others who ignored the warning, Andrea Jefferson and Emily Andris, who left to teach elsewhere, their teaching licenses now are in jeopardy.

Any teacher can leave an Illinois school district, of course. In general, 30 days notice is required, whether in the summer, or during the school year.

What's at issue here is Illinois statutes in place that apply to tenured teachers during the school term: A district has the right to reject a tenured teacher's resignation if that means the teacher would leave during the school term to take a teaching job at a different school district.

With school board support, Unit 5 has referred the two cases to the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE). A license suspension of up to one year is possible.

Multiple calls for comment to ISBE offices in Springfield and Chicago were not returned.

The statute hasn’t been used until now because there’s been no need, said Unit 5 Human Resources Director Roger Baldwin, noting the nation is facing a huge teachers' shortage.

“You don’t really have to go much further than just to watch the morning news to hear that 300,000 to 400,000 teachers are leaving every year,” he said.

Baldwin said many Unit 5 teaching positions used to draw 50 to 75 applicants, but now only bring a handful of interested applicants.

Special education roles are even harder to fill.

Critical need: Special ed teachers in high demand

University of Illinois professor Paul Bruno, who specializes in education, recently told National Public Radio in DeKalb the teacher shortage isn’t across the board. It affects some geographic regions more than others, and it's acutely felt in certain disciplines.

Science, bilingual and special education — finding teachers in those areas is the most difficult, according to Bruno.

That critical need for special education services was key in Unit 5’s decision, said Baldwin. The district already had four vacancies in special education. The newly-submitted four resignations would have doubled the shortage.

“When we’re seven days out, you know, 10 days out from the start of school, and we’ve been trying to find applicants all summer long for these particular positions. We already have four or five that we’re trying to fill all summer — we know we’re not going to come up with the number, and fill seven or eight,” said Baldwin.

Barry Hitchins
Carleigh Gray
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WGLT file
Unit 5 school board president Barry Hitchins.

The fact Unit 5 would have doubled its vacancies in special education this fall meant the district was in a difficult position, added Unit 5 School Board president Barry Hitchins.

The board is charged with ensuring teaching resources are available to district students, so the situation needed attention, he said, adding the rejections really come down to the district simply requiring teachers to honor their contracts.

The resignations were submitted less than a month before the start date for the two teachers' 2022-2023 contract, said Unit 5 leaders.

According to the Illinois School Code, an "expectation of continued employment" for the school term already would have kicked in, said Baldwin. That's the legal standard that Illinois has in place to allow districts to limit tenured teachers from going from one school district to another during a school year.

At its August meeting, the school board voted 5-1 to send the two teacher's resignation cases to the ISBE.

“If we hadn’t gone down this route, we might have had additional teachers go as well. It’s trying to reduce the impacts to our students at that point,” said Hitchins.

Unit 5 school board member Jeremy DeHaai was the only member against the formal referral to the state. He voted “no,” primarily because of concern of how it could be perceived by future teachers, he said.

DeHaai said he understands why procedures are in place to require teachers not leave for other school districts once a school term is underway.

But he asks: What happens if Unit 5 is neck-and-neck with another district, competing for a job candidate? This policy of sending names to the state board could be a deal breaker for some applicants, he said, adding in such a competitive job market, maybe it’s better for the district to avoid a reputation as being an employer who won’t let teachers move on.

"Anything we can do to try to paint Unit 5 in the best light for potential new hires would be best for us,” said DeHaai.

Besides Hitchins, school board members Stan Gozur, Alan Kalitzky, Kelly Pyle,and Amy Roser voted in favor of of the resolution.

Member Kentrica Coleman abstained, telling WGLT she hadn't been on the board long enough to make an informed vote on the resignation issue.

Both teachers whose resignations were rejected — Jefferson and Andris — declined to be interviewed.

But in an email to WGLT, Jefferson said her family relocated, so she changed jobs. She now teaches elsewhere in McLean County.

Andris now works at Illinois State University, in a position that doesn't require a teaching license. “I did resign prior to the start of the school year, after working for Unit 5 for 15 years,” she wrote in an email to WGLT.

“It is unfortunate that they denied (my resignation) when I did not leave to take another position as a teacher in a K-12 school setting. I am hopeful that since I am working at ISU, ISBE will not suspend my teaching license,” added Andris.

Unit 5 administrator Baldwin said the district wants to support teachers who choose to leave the district, but it's not in students’ best interest for teachers to make those moves at the last minute.

“That just leads us to have to take other actions to make up for that — like collapsing classes, shifting teachers around," he said.

Enlisting substitute teachers without special education skill sets is a temporary solution. But he said that’s not what’s best for students.

Teachers’ advocate: statute not new, but interpretation changed

Ben Matthews, with the Illinois Education Association, represents area teachers’ unions, including those in Unit 5 and Bloomington's District 87.

Unit 5’s decision to reject these four resignations, and refer Andris and Jefferson to the ISBE is disappointing, he said.

“This is the only place, I’m aware of so far, where we’ve seen the board take that kind of official action,” said Matthews, acknowledging the shortage of teachers is creating stress on the system. But he said the way to address the problem is by improving the working environment for teachers, not penalizing teachers who want to move jobs because they want to work closer to their home, or other reasons.

Rejecting resignations may plug a hole to fill a short-term need, said Matthews. But the long-term solution is for Unit 5 to work with the Illinois Education Association to create a work environment where teachers are compensated fairly, and want to stay in the district, he said.

Unit 5 and the ISBE are interpreting the Illinois School Code in a new way this year, according to Matthews.

“It is essentially written in such a way that if the board doesn’t agree to let you go teach somewhere else — during the school term — that you either have to stay, or they can have your license held by the state superintendent,” he said.

Key to the discussion is how “school term” is defined. Does it include the 30-day window prior to a teacher’s contract starting? Or does it refer to the first day of classes?

Unit 5’s Baldwin said the late July and early August resignation requests would have the 30-day window spilling into the school year — thus making them within the state’s expectation of continued employment during the "school term.”

But Matthews said that’s different than previous years, adding he hasn't seen that in more than 20 years in the education field.

“They’ve actually, in their interpretation, extended the school term by 30 days prior to students being in attendance — which is not how we interpret it, which is not how it has been interpreted,” he said.

Matthews said in these situations, Unit 5 should expect teachers to give 30 days notice. But threatening those teachers if they won't stay on for the entire school year? That's not in the spirit of how the law was intended, he said — the idea was for a school district to have enough time to replace the teacher.

District 87 Superintendent David Mouser said his district hasn’t resorted to rejected resignations. He's been the top District 87 administrator since July. The Bloomington district has been able to fill most positions for 2022-2023, he said.

Mouser acknowledged most Illinois school districts are beginning to ask questions about how they'll respond to the continuing teacher shortage, but he sees the rejected resignations as problematic.

“Do school districts want an employee to stay, if that person doesn’t want to be there?” he asked.

Unit 5 school board president Hitchins said he understands the negative connotations of requiring teachers to stay. But with teachers in such high demand, he expects more districts to follow suit.

“Yes it's unfortunate. But given, again, the teacher shortage, this might be something that you start to see more often," he said.

For now, Andris and Jefferson must wait to see how the state board responds to their cases.

According to the statute, once ISBE receives the paperwork, the board has 90 days to hold an informal hearing. Next, State Superintendent Carmen Ayala decides whether to suspend the teaching licenses for a year, for less time, or not at all.

Likely by December, a decision will come down. How the ISBE responds will help Illinois teachers determine what to expect for the upcoming year.

District continues recruitment

Meanwhile, Unit 5 is actively recruiting teachers, said Baldwin, noting district hiring administrators host job fairs, and stay involved with teachers' education programs throughout the state.

"We're always on the recruitment path — whether its crisis mode or not, just trying to discover new connections that we're not already pursuing," he said.

One of the district's latest efforts is establishing a cohort of current teaching assistants, who might be interested in pursuing a bachelor's degree in special education.

"It would help them through that process," said Baldwin.

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Michele Steinbacher is a WGLT correspondent. She joined the staff in 2020.
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