The Oak Park and River Forest High School board asked for public comment and on April 11 they got it. They also learned that it may not be a good idea to get theater kids mad.
Between 150 and 200 people, more than half OPRF students, came to OPRF’s Little Theater last Wednesday night for a special meeting of the District 200 school board to give public comment about the school board’s recent decision to send out reduction in force notices (RIF) to 21 non-tenured and part-time teachers at the school.
Although RIF’s happen in pretty much every school district in Illinois every year, this year’s list at OPRF stirred outrage among some parents and students. Even though many teachers that are RIF-fed are eventually called back, it appears that the very popular acting teacher and head of the OPRF theater department Tracy Strimple will not be called back. Strimple, who has a background in musical theater, also teaches directing and has directed numerous shows at OPRF.
About 60 people, mostly students, spoke at the meeting. The public comment period lasted for nearly 2 1/2 hours. While the students praised a number of teachers on the RIF list, Strimple was a name that came up over and over again.
“She is a mom to every single person in this theater department,” said Phoebe Sullivan-Bing, an OPRF senior.
Another student said that “Ms. Strimple has inspired me beyond belief to be better than I have ever been.”
Strimple, who has served as theater department chair since October, quietly sat in the top row of the Little Theater throughout the meeting listening to student after student speak on her behalf.
“It’s been an incredibly emotional evening for me,” said Strimple, a five-year, part-time teacher as she was leaving after the meeting.
She teaches three classes a semester as part of her part-time schedule and has been riffed every year and has always been called back. But at a meeting last month with her division head, Strimple said that she was told that this time she wouldn’t be called back.
“In the past when I had my RIF meeting it’s just a formality and I’ve always been told ‘this is how many classes you have for the following year and you’ll be getting your contract soon for next year,'” Strimple said. “At this year’s RIF meeting I was told that another teacher will be taking over the theater classes and I will not be asked back.”
Sarah Roodhouse, chair of OPRF’s Fine & Applied Arts/Business Division, declined to comment on her conversation with Strimple.
“There is so much stress around here right now around this. I feel I cannot comment,” Roodhouse said.
Strimple also insisted she did not encourage or organize the big turnout of theater students at last week’s meeting, although she did inform students in her classes that she wouldn’t be coming back to OPRF.
Seniority usually governs employment decisions when schools RIF teachers. A tenured teacher can bump a part time or non-tenured teacher for a teaching slot. State law governs this but the law is beginning to change to allow teacher evaluations to be considered.
One student said that more than seniority needs to be considered.
“The idea that good teachers are RIF’ed is terrible when bad teachers can stay,” said Maddie Rees, an OPRF junior. “I think merit should at least be taken into consideration rather than just how long you’ve been here.”
School board members attending last Wednesday’s special meeting said that they were impressed by the passionate comments from students and parents.
“I’ve been blown away by the comments,” said Board member Amy McCormack.
After the meeting member Sharon Patchak-Layman said that she will be influenced by what she heard at the meeting.
“I think what the students said will carry a lot weight in my decision making,” Patchak-Layman said.