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Teacher whose resignation was rejected by Unit 5 speaks out

Unit 5 rejected the resignations of four special education teachers, who gave notice less than a month before school's start. One teacher who stayed tells WGLT, the experience has been difficult.

A Unit 5 teacher whose resignation was rejected says she feels like a hostage now, working for the district.

Jennifer Hawkins’ family learned in late July they’d need to relocate to Springfield.

But district leaders told the Cedar Ridge Elementary resources teacher, if she did leave to teach elsewhere, they’d ask the state to suspend her teaching license.

“It’s not like I was unhappy in my job and wanting to leave. I love my job. It’s just a family situation, you know?” she said.

Hawkins has worked in special education for nearly two decades, more than five with McLean County’s largest school district.

Illinois School Code indicates if a tenured teacher’s resignation is submitted less than a month before the start of the school term, that person only can resign to teach in other school districts on one condition: if the school board OKs the departure.

Facing four special education teacher vacancies already, Unit 5 had a tough decision when four more in that discipline submitted resignations in the weeks before school started, said Roger Baldwin, Unit 5 human resources director.

The district rejected all four, and the Unit 5 school board agreed. Two of those teachers ignored the warning and left anyway. Now the state is reviewing those cases.

Two other teachers opted to continue on at Unit 5: Hawkins is one.

She was blindsided by the rejection, and said she was unaware of the rule.

Hawkins said several education professionals urged her to resign despite Unit 5’s threat.

“But I couldn’t take the chance of being unemployed, you know, for them to suspend my license for a year,” she said.

Despite the added stress from having a household caught in limbo, she’s continuing her role as elementary resources teacher for Cedar Ridge Elementary School.

“I still live here. We kind of just are on hold,” she said.

"I’m still putting in my best effort because the kids that I work with deserve that."
Jennifer Hawkins, Unit 5 teacher

Extra burdens include managing a household, and being solely responsible for her child’s transportation to and from school in the Olympia School District — all while working in Bloomington.

“I’m still putting in my best effort because the kids that I work with deserve that — and that’s why I wanted to be a teacher," Hawkins said.

But she called the experience a hardship — one that leaves her feeling isolated.

“The district preaches all of this self care and wanting their teachers to be happy — wanting us to be a team. But then you feel very alone in, you know, this decision,” she said.
The Illinois School Code section that limits certain resignations in the month before school’s start has been on the books for decades. But Unit 5 only turned to it this year because of the shortage, said Baldwin.

“We haven’t done this in the past because in prior years, that talent has been out there, and we’ve been able to get it. That just doesn’t happen right now,” he said.

Back then, district leaders were confident accepting a resignation wouldn’t negatively impact students. That’s because multiple qualified applicants would be in the mix right away, said Baldwin.

The Unit 5 administration supports teachers when their careers call them to other districts, but so close to the school year’s start, the district had to ensure classrooms would be staffed, he said.

So, for now, Baldwin said the district looks at resignations on a case-by-case basis.

Other teaching disciplines not affected

After the district rejected her July 30 resignation, Hawkins said she tried to persuade administrators to see the difficult situation her family would face. She said she had follow-up conversations with the Unit Five Education Association teachers union, Baldwin, and Unit 5 Superintendent Kristen Weikle.

The superintendent said if Hawkins were asking to leave an easier-to-fill position — such as physical education — the district would let her leave for another district. But the critical need for special education staffing meant they had to reject the resignation, she was told.

Weikle didn't respond to requests for comment on this story.

Hawkins cries foul on Unit 5’s choice to apply this 30-day rule only to special education teachers, and not for its other educators.

“It’s punishing me for going into special ed. Had I taught something else, this wouldn’t be happening,” she said.

Hawkins also thinks the state’s logic with the statute is flawed: Prohibiting its own teachers from moving from one district to another doesn’t benefit the education system, she said.

“The whole thing just doesn't make sense because had I quit and went to go work at State Farm, they would have done nothing. Essentially, a district is punishing another district, and you're driving teachers out of the field.”

Mid-year relief possible, but not likely

Hawkins said Weikle did tell her that if Unit 5 is able to find applicants — say in December when new university graduates might apply — Hawkins could leave at that time.

“It is literally like being held hostage until they let me go,” she said. “And Dr. Weikle said once they get some people to fill the job, they would let me go. But she was not sure when that would happen.”

Administrator Baldwin said if it's likely a position can be filled, Unit 5 would release a tenured teacher from the contract, even during the school term.

Hawkins isn't holding her breath, though. All districts are in the same boat, she said. Special education teacher applicants are nowhere to be found.

Unit 5 administration criticized 

Some community members have criticized Unit 5 for this following this new policy of resignation rejection, while also taking applicants from other school districts in the days just before a school year’s start.

But Baldwin said he can’t speak for other districts. “The statute applies across all school districts,” he said, adding Unit 5, just like other districts, staffs positions right up to the start of school and throughout the year.

Besides, other districts do enforce the statute’s requirement, he said.

"This isn't as uncommon as some people think," he said.

Unit 5 has had job applicants withdraw from consideration, or turn down job offers, if they learn their own school districts won’t accept their resignation because it falls within 30 days of the contract’s start date. That happened recently when Unit 5 tried to hire a high school-level teacher specializing in business courses.

And last spring, when another district’s administrator applied to work in Unit 5, it came into play, as well, he said.

State board reviews cases

As for the two Unit 5 teachers who ignored the district’s rejection, and resigned anyway, a ruling is expected by the end of November.

Baldwin said once Unit 5’s school board voted to ask ISBE to review the cases, there's no more for the district to do.

“After that its completely up to them to do their own follow-ups and investigation, and develop an outcome,” he said.

ISBE spokesperson Jackie Matthews declined to be interviewed for this story.

In an email, she said the board received the materials Aug. 22. By law, the ISBE has 90 days to hold an informal hearing, and make a decision.

In the email, Matthews said the state has suspended a teacher's license previously, based on a district rejecting a resignation. She said more information on that could be found on the board's website.

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