By Terry Dean
Maria Lombardo-Nitsche was unsure about her fate as an Oak Park and River Forest High School teacher prior to Monday's special board meeting concerning the possible dismissal of about two dozen faculty members.
Lombardo-Nitsche was among 21 OPRF teachers who received reduction-in-force (RIF) notices on March 22.
At a special board meeting on Monday, school trustees voted to rehire 16 of those instructors, Lombardo-Nitsche among them. The school was originally set to bring back 10 instructors but revised their "call back list" just prior to the meeting to add six additional instructors.
"I'm surprised. I'm not sure what changed. Until now I didn't have an answer. Now I do," Lombardo-Nitsche, a six-year, part-time OPRF teacher said after the board voted 5-2 to rehire the faculty members.
Monday's vote brings to a close a controversial episode of what had been in previous years a pretty routine process.
Teachers throughout the state annually receive a reduction in force, or RIF, notice each spring. Some instructors who are let go are often rehired due to updated student enrollment projections for the following school year, which impacts course scheduling. The RIFed teachers are usually non-tenured or part-time. But this year's RIF sparked outrage among some parents and students, upset that their favorite teachers were on the list.
Lombardo-Nitsche, who previously taught in the Chicago Public Schools system, has received a RIF notice every year since she's been teaching at OPRF. In years past, she would be told by the school before spring break that she'd be back, as well as what classes she'd be teaching the upcoming year. But that didn't happen this year, she said.
The six additional instructors who were called back Monday were all among OPRF's longest serving "part-timers," said Dietra Millard, president of the OPRF school board.
Millard said the board directed administration to balance out the list of teachers brought back to include both part-timers with longer tenure at the school and some with shorter tenure.
Since issuing the 21 RIF notices, the board and administration have been besieged with criticism from a very vocal group of parents and students opposed to dismissing any of the teachers. Opponents argued that the dismissals were triggered solely by budgetary concerns. School officials countered that the move is an annual process in deciding the upcoming year's faculty workforce.
But financial considerations did play a role with Lombardo-Nitsche and those other five instructors.
Those teachers fall under a higher salary scale due to their level of education — four have master's degrees, one has a bachelor's, and Lombardo-Nitsche is one of the few OPRF instructors with a PhD.
Millard said the board understood and supported the administration's goal to stay within financial targets, but some members felt their recommendation shouldn't negatively impact current faculty.
The board was set to take action on the RIFs at their April 12 regular meeting but tabled a vote in order to discuss the matter further. Monday's special meeting was actually set up to discuss the board's strategic planning process but was amended to include a vote and discussion about the teachers. The board deliberated for nearly 90 minutes in executive session before reconvening in open session to discuss and vote on the RIFs.
Sharon Patchak-Layman voted against the measure because she felt the board should restart the discussions about the RIF process before letting go of any teachers. Amy McCormack cast the other dissenting vote, saying she supported rehiring teachers but didn't think the board did enough to determine if more could be rehired.
OPRF student Jacob Meeks, who has led much of the student movement to rehire all 21 teachers, including setting up a Facebook page as well as the website (saveoprf.org), attended Monday's meeting and was "angered" by the board's action. When asked for his reaction to their vote, he replied, "Recall."