Anthony Skokna: "They just didn't know what else to do with me."
Anthony Skokna: "They just didn't know what else to do with me." Credit: Andrea Bauer

Mayor Daley’s had a great run over the last few weeks.

Since leaving office May 16, he has, let’s see, landed a gig at the University of Chicago, where he’ll have to “coordinate” a handful of lectures in exchange for a reported $100,000 a year.

That would be the same University of Chicago that last year was part of a development team receiving the OK for a $20 million handout from the mayor’s good old tax increment financing honeypot to help build a hotel, retail, and office complex in blighted (ha, ha, ha) Hyde Park.

Daley also got a gig as a lawyer for Katten Muchin Rosenman, the firm that employs his best friend, Terry Newman, and racked up more than a million bucks in legal fees from advising the city on such privatization schemes as the parking meter lease deal.

Thanks a lot for that one, fellows.

Then there’s the company the ex-mayor’s reportedly launching with his son, Patrick, which will be seeking overseas investors for deals in Chicago. Not to mention his speaking engagements and prospective book deals.

As my colleague Mick Dumke put it, they’re all steps in Daley’s “ongoing privatization of himself.”

Oh, wait, can’t forget his pension—about $184,000 a year.

To paraphrase the great Johnnie Taylor, it might have been cheaper to keep him around.

In contrast, consider the case of Anthony Skokna, 56, who was unceremoniously dumped from his job as a history teacher at Marshall High School, just about two years shy of claiming any of his pension. He’s been applying for jobs all over town, but no one will hire him, most likely because he’s too old.

Before he went to Marshall, Skokna taught for eight years at a couple of Catholic high schools in Chicago. He says he might have closed out his career in the Catholic schools but he had a growing family (eight kids) and needed a higher-paying job. In the fall of 1992, he started at Marshall. “The city was so short of teachers, they hired a bunch of us,” he says. “Different than today.”

Actually, not so different. That teacher shortage was in part induced by a pension buyout plan the central office cooked up to induce hundreds of older teachers into retiring so they could be could be replaced with younger ones (like Skokna) who made less money.

If this were a novel, it would be called ironic.

Going from a private to a public school was, he says, “a shocking transition.” There was less accountability. At the private school, kids who couldn’t cut it—or who misbehaved—were kicked out. You can’t quite do that in public schools.

At Marshall, he says, he changed his style: “I was less the tough guy, and more forgiving.”

To a certain degree there was no point in being tough. “You can’t really kick any kids out, so you’re not really holding a lot over their heads,” he says. Plus, most of the kids were a lot tougher than he was. “These kids see toughness every day. I wanted to do what I could to encourage them to stay in school, to stay focused on making something out of their lives, to not let life beat them down. I wanted to show them that there’s someone who cares about their existence. I loved the school and the kids. I wanted to keep my job.” At different points, he also helped coach the school’s baseball and boys 16-inch softball teams.

“Tony’s a great teacher who gave his heart and soul to the kids,” says Paul McKelvin, who coached boys softball with him. “He’s just an excellent human being with a big heart.”

Last year, though, Skokna got the boot.

Declaring that Marshall’s test scores were too low and its dropout rate too high, former schools CEO Ron Huberman declared that Marshall would undergo a “turnaround.” In the spring of 2010 Huberman dispatched a crew of central office bureaucrats, who notified the teachers that regardless of whether they had tenure, they would have to reapply for their jobs. “I wanted to stay, so I reapplied,” says Skokna.

In May of last year he was told to report to a CPS district office not far from Sox park, where he was ushered into a room with seven other teachers, three of whom came from other schools that were being turned around. Several officials then led them through a workshop. “They told us, ‘You come from a bad, terrible school. How would you make it better?'” Skokna says. “We gave suggestions.”

After about three hours, they were sent home. “This happened during the school day, by the way,” says Skokna. In other words, the turnaround squad didn’t formally interview him, observe him in class, or talk to his students.

He said he had an inkling of the direction things were going when the turnaround team brought prospective teachers to his classroom to give them a tryout. “They’d come in and say, ‘Could you leave so we can use your class?'” he recalls. “It was a little awkward.”

So he’d go to the hallway or the library. A couple of times a member of the turnaround team asked him to come back to the classroom. “They’d say, ‘Could you please help us settle your class?’—the kids were being a little disruptive for the tryout teacher,” says Skokna. “Think about it from the kids’ perspective. Some of the kids told me, ‘We don’t have to listen to you—you’re getting fired anyway.’ And other kids would tell the turnaround people, ‘Why are you bringing in this new teacher? Mr. Skokna is our teacher.'”

By the end of last school year, he hadn’t received any word about whether he’d be brought back. So he called the central office. “I wound up talking to someone who says, ‘Oh, you didn’t get a call?’ I said no. And they said, ‘You should have. But you’re not coming back.'” And that’s how he learned that, after 18 years on the job, his days at Marshall were over.

All told, 47 of the school’s 61 teachers were fired, all of them like Skokna—old-timers making as much as $82,000 a year. (Skokna made about $75,000). In their place, the new principal, Kenyatta Stansberry-Butler, brought in younger, less-experienced teachers making between $55,000 and $60,000.

The one significant veteran who kept her job was girls basketball coach Dorothy Gaters. It’s sort of hard—even for the Chicago Public Schools—to fire a legend whose teams have won eight state championships.

At the time, Stansberry-Butler and central office officials said their purpose was not to cut salaries. That’s just sort of a coincidence.

Oh, and one more thing: there are three central office transition officials at Marshall making an average of $85,000, more than any teacher in the school, according to the CPS payroll. That’s another lesson young teachers might want to learn: in CPS, the farther you get from a classroom, the more money you make.

As for Skokna, he was sent to what CPS calls the “reassignment pool,” which is filled with teachers kicked out of turned-around schools. As a displaced teacher, he keeps his salary and benefits for one year, but he’s not assigned to a permanent school while he looks for a full-time job.

He says he’s been sent to seven schools, never for than a month at a time. In some, he was told to teach math or science, two subjects he knows little about. In another, he was told to sit at a desk by the fire escape and keep kids from escaping. Unless, of course they tried to escape, in which case he wasn’t supposed to stop them.

“I was told if they do escape, don’t try to stop them because it’s all captured on a security camera,” he says. “It made no sense—I guess they just didn’t know what else to do with me.”

When I hear tales like this—and I hear them from teachers a lot—it’s almost enough to turn me into a raving, right-wing charter school fanatic.

At one point, the central office even sent him back to Marshall. “I told them I hadn’t been rehired at Marshall,” Skokna says. “They said, ‘That’s OK—you know the school.'”

He says he’s sent his resumé to dozens of schools throughout the system and in the suburbs, but so far he hasn’t had a call back. They’re looking for younger/cheaper teachers, who can later be replaced by younger/cheaper teachers. And so the merry-go-round continues. I called and e-mailed Stansberry-Butler to get her take on things, but she didn’t get back to me.

Over the years I’ve had countless conversations with central office big shots about wholesale school turnarounds. Their argument is that at a certain point they just have to blow up a school. Those who can’t be part of the change will be replaced.

It looks like we’re facing a radical reconstruction of teaching as a profession. It’s no longer a career for someone hoping to have a middle-class life. Think of it as missionary work, like joining the Peace Corps—something you do before you move on to the rest of your life.

In a few weeks, Skokna’s salary runs out. After that he can become a substitute teacher for $210 day, or he can go on unemployment and hope for a new job.

It’s curious, this double standard we have when it comes to cracking down on low-scoring schools. The man in charge of the system retires with, among other things, a well-paid, do-little position at one of the most prestigious universities in the world.

Meanwhile, the teacher on the front line winds up on the dole. 

E-mail Ben Joravsky at Joravsky discusses his reporting weekly with journalist Dave Glowacz at Subscribe to their podcast at the iTunes Store.