HISD Board Votes to Continue Eliminating Teacher Jobs Through RIFs While HFT President Says Process Is Being Abused

It used to be that RIF had a good connotation - standing for the much appreciated nationwide program Reading is Fundamental.

But starting in 2011, RIF has meant nothing but a pink slip to Houston ISD teachers. That's the year the district started its Reduction in Force process that unlike the more traditional form of dismissal - as in you are a lousy teacher - didn't have to be for cause. Instead, if principals found themselves unable to make budget or if they wanted to concentrate on another area of expertise, they could tell a staffer that he or she (and his or her skill set) was no longer needed.

At last night's HISD school board meeting the issue came up again when two items came up before the board to allow the RIF process to continue for employees with both continuing and term contracts. New trustee Wanda Adams, saying she was alarmed by the literacy crisis in the district (yes, it's now important again and if you'd like to know what we wrote about it last year check this out) wanted to exempt librarians from any RIFs.

In turn, board members Anna Eastman and Harvin Moore argued that to set aside a specific category of employee would tie the hands of principals throughout the district. And what would happen the next year? Would more exemptions be granted? And shouldn't a principal be able to decide what's the best way to meet the academic needs of his students?

The first vote to allow RIFs on continuing contracts (where principals think their school enrollment will be lower in the next year) passed 6-2 with Board President Juliet Stipeche and Rhona Skillern-Jones voting against. The second measure on term contracts passed by a 5-3 vote (Stipeche and Skillern-Jones were joined by Adams), but not without a lot of discussion.

Gayle Fallon, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers, and union exec Joanna Pasternak both spoke against RIFs, saying that this was just a way for principals to get rid of people they didn't like, without having to prove to any independent source that the employee wasn't measuring up.

They also questioned why anyone would be dismissed now while the district's website says that it has 185 jobs unfilled this year. and is anticipating needing another 156 positions for next year.

"Last year you lost a couple thousand teachers," Fallon told the board during her public speaking time. "Your teachers feel you don't respect them. I keep hearing you talk about the fairness to the building principal. Did you ever for a minute consider fairness to your teachers? It's one of the reasons you can't keep them. The administration constantly tells you it's only the bad teachers who leave. All over 2,000 of them were bad teachers?"

Saying she believes employees should be held accountable, Fallon said the RIF method can be abused by principals.

"You don't like this person, you really don't want them on your campus so go ahead. We'll give you another avenue. And they take that avenue."

Eastman pointed out, however, that being "rif-ed" came without the stigma of being dismissed for cause which would be helpful for anyone trying to get another job. And as she and others emphasized fewer than 20 teachers from last year actually finally lost their job from the RIF process because most found other jobs in the district.

Pasternak questioned why the board was approving this alternative job termination policy on the same night that it voted to ask the state for waivers for more than 1,200 classes whose student to teacher ratio exceeds the state mandate.

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