In the first week of August, as he was preparing for his 25th year as a middle school social studies teacher, Rob DiPrima got the call CPS teachers have come to fear.
His principal was on the line, telling him to beat it—We’re too damn broke to pay your salary, she said.
Well, she was a little more delicate in her phrasing. But the bottom line amounted to the same thing. DiPrima was getting laid off because apparently we’ve reached the point where certified social studies teachers are a luxury some Chicago public schools can’t afford.
Just when I thought things couldn’t get worse.
At age 52, DiPrima’s something of a legend at southeast-side Jane Addams Elementary School, where he’s taught seventh- and eighth-grade social studies since 2000.
According to former students, DiPrima’s an impassioned storyteller who brings lessons of the past alive and makes them relevant to children today.
For his efforts, he was awarded educator of the year by the East Side Chicago Chamber of Commerce in 2010. And in 2004 he passed the test that made him a nationally certified teacher—one of the highest distinctions a grammar or high school teacher can achieve.
“I wanted to teach at Addams until I retired,” he says. “I love my job.”
But on August 5 he got a call from his principal, Ruth Martini-Walsh. “It was a short conversation,” DiPrima says. “She said, ‘I have eliminated your position—there’s a job fair next week.’ And I said, ‘Thanks for ruining my life,’ and I hung up.”
DiPrima was one of roughly 1,000 CPS employees—including 500 teachers—laid off last month because of budget cuts.
Martini-Walsh didn’t respond to requests for comment. But according to the letter she posted on the school’s website, she had no choice.
“These teachers were not cut from our staff because of talent or performance issues, but because of a decrease in Addams’ enrollment, and, therefore, our budget,” Martini-Walsh wrote. “Simply put: our budget and decreased enrollment cannot support the same number of teaching positions.”
Enrollment declined at Addams because students have been funneled to a new elementary school just up the road that will open in September.
And Mayor Emanuel decided to build the new school because Addams and another nearby school were overcrowded.
So the project intended to help Addams’s students wound up kicking them in the teeth. So it goes in Chicago.
The challenge for Martini-Walsh—as it is for any principal facing falling enrollment—is deciding which teachers to let go.
Generally, union contract seniority rules favor long-standing employees like DiPrima. So in theory a principal should be forced to lay off the last person hired first. But things have changed.
In the good old days of Mayor Daley—a phrase I find myself muttering more frequently than I ever imagined I would—CPS allotted teachers to a school based on enrollment.
If a principal wanted to fill a teaching vacancy with a seasoned employee—such as DiPrima—so be it. The central office picked up that salary, no questions asked.
But Emanuel changed that funding formula in an effort to save money in the classroom—leaving him free to spend it on things like the new Marriott Hotel and DePaul basketball arena he’s building with TIF funds in the South Loop.
Nowadays CPS gives each school a flat per-pupil allowance that doesn’t fluctuate with a teacher’s salary. Thus, there’s no incentive for a principal to pay more to hire experienced teachers, no matter how many awards they’ve won or how much their students love them.
In fact, it’s just the opposite. There’s an incentive for principals to hire the cheapest teachers they can find.
To be blunt, when it comes to a teacher like DiPrima, principals tend not to see a classroom asset. Instead, they see $91,000—which is about what he was making. And that kind of money is almost enough to buy a principal two rookie teachers just out of college.
I’m not sure you can build a world-class public school system if teaching experience is treated as a financial liability, but that’s where we’re at.
Effectively, Martini-Walsh got around union seniority rules by cutting DiPrima’s position from the budget, so the school has no social studies teacher at all.
On August 23, about two dozen people showed up at Addams for a local school council meeting to plead with Martini-Walsh to rehire DiPrima.
Tenth Ward alderman Sue Sadlowski Garza—who used to be a counselor at the school—asked who’d be teaching social studies in lieu of DiPrima.
Martini-Walsh said the assistant principal—who’s certified in math—would fill that role.
“So they’ve got a math teacher teaching social studies,” says Garza. “It’s crazy.”
An Addams parent set up an online petition so parents, students, and graduates could weigh in on DiPrima’s behalf.
As of publication it was filled with more than 300 testimonials ranging from “He is the most inspirational teacher I have ever met” to “He’s one of the teachers you remember forever” to “You’re fucking idiots for firing him.”
As you can see, some of his fans are rather passionate. In any event, the students at Addams are now without a certified social studies teacher, though most civilized school systems require students to take social studies.
I suppose we might question whether CPS counts as a civilized school system at this point—an enlightening topic for any social studies class to debate, in any school that still has one.
At least this story has one happy ending: DiPrima called me Tuesday to tell me he’d been hired—at his same salary—to teach sixth-grade history at southwest-side Sutherland Elementary School.
Congratulations, my man.
One school’s loss is another school’s gain. Perhaps that’s the best we can hope for from CPS in the age of Mayor Rahm. v