Sunny Neater-DuBow
Sunny Neater-DuBow Credit: Andre J. Jackson

Since being laid off in early August, Sunny Neater-DuBow has emerged as a poster child for the great Chicago Public Schools purge, in which Ron Huberman and the Board of Education swept more than 1,300 teachers from the system.

For seven years Neater-DuBow was a CPS art teacher, the last two of them at the Multicultural Arts High School at 3210 S. Kostner in Little Village, and her dismissal makes no sense on the face of it. She exemplifies what Huberman calls the “gold standard” of teaching excellence. And yet, she says, “I have no job—I have no prospect for jobs. We’re talking about getting food stamps and going on Medicaid. I was at the top of my profession—how did this happen to me?”

The answer has to do with Huberman’s deployment of a rarely used tool—what CPS calls “redefinition”—in his effort to either force salary and tenure concessions from the Chicago Teachers Union or slash his payroll some other way.

Huberman started talking tough last year about forcing teachers to take a pay cut, arguing that the system was desperately short on cash because of delays and cutbacks in state and federal funding.

He said he’d already cut central office spending to the bone and was now asking teachers to forgo a 4 percent raise that kicks in next month.

But Huberman lost a lot of credibility with teachers when it was reported (by me) that he and hundreds of other central office staffers had actually been given pay hikes in the budget the Board of Education approved last August.

CTU President Karen Lewis told Huberman that teachers had no intention of voluntarily giving up their raises. She said that it’s hard to believe the system’s broke when the central office honchos get pay hikes and look the other way while Mayor Daley diverts up to $250 million a year in property taxes from CPS to his tax increment financing program.

So Huberman went to plan B. On June 15 the board unanimously adopted a resolution giving him emergency powers to circumvent the union contract by raising class sizes and laying off the teachers whom this would render unnecessary. The more kids you cram into a classroom, the fewer teachers you need on the payroll.

Under the contract, teachers who have been on the job for at least three years have tenure, which means they have due process rights. If they’re dismissed “for cause,” meaning fired for some perceived wrongdoing, they cannot be let go without a hearing. If they’re laid off because enrollment’s falling at their school, or because the school’s in “turnaround” and the entire faculty is being replaced, they keep their salary and benefits for a year and can apply for other openings in the system (or even, in the case of a turnaround, at their old school).

Also under the contract, in the case of mass layoffs due to a budget crisis, the board must follow seniority procedures—which means the last hired are the first fired.

Arguing that the system faced a “financial exigency,” the June 15 resolution gave Huberman the “authority to honorably terminate (lay off) tenured teachers” without due process.

By mid-August the board had mailed out some 1,300 layoff notices. One went to Neater-DuBow.

She already had an idea what it was about. On August 9 she’d gotten a phone call from her principal. Neater-DuBow wasn’t home to pick up the phone, so the principal left a message: “As part of CPS’s ongoing effort to balance its fiscal year 2011 budget, they have closely examined the various support provided at each school in order to determine the budget and allocate resources for the upcoming school year. Due to these cost-saving measures, I just feel the need to inform you that your position at MAS will close and you will be laid off.”

The notice arrived two days later. It was a curious letter: no one had signed it by name, yet it was written in the first person.

“Dear colleague,” it began. “Please be advised that your position is no longer available effective August 31, 2010 due to Redefinition. As a result, I regret to inform you that you will be laid off and honorably dismissed effective August 31, 2010. Teachers honorably dismissed are not entitled to either the Reassigned Teacher Pool or the Cadre.”

These are the two pools that laid-off teachers normally go into as they continue to draw salaries and receive benefits. Neater-DuBow, in other words, would no longer receive a paycheck. And she, her freelance journalist husband, and their one-year-old daughter would lose their health benefits.

“On behalf of the CPS, I thank you for your service to Chicago public school students,” the letter concluded. “Sincerely, Office of Human Capital.”

The Chicago Public Schools contract with the teachers’ union makes no mention of redefinition. It’s a concept CPS has rarely invoked in the past, according to CTU spokesperson Liz Brown, and then usually to justify moving a teacher from one school to another, not to fire anybody. Neater-DuBow had never heard of redefinition until she and 241 other teachers were dismissed because of it.

Other reasons CPS gave for laying off teachers included “reallocation of funds,” “lack of funds,” programs changed, reduced, or closed, “enrollment drop,” and “class size increase.” In none of these cases were teachers granted due process.

Huberman has argued against tenure protection for underachieving teachers. But Neater-DuBow is an overachiever. She’s sought and won national board certification, one of the most prestigious designations a teacher can achieve. “To get the certification you apply to the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards,” she says. “I had to send in written and video portfolios to document how I went above and beyond the duties of the school day to serve my students. I also had to take a four-hour exam in my area.”

In 2008 she was one of 171 CPS teachers honored by Mayor Daley and CEO Arne Duncan for earning the certification.

Daley likes to boast about certification recipients, citing them as examples of how the best and brightest teachers want to work for CPS. “To take our schools to the next level of accomplishment, we must do what’s needed to improve learning in the classroom, starting with creating an even better pool of teachers in Chicago,” the mayor said at the January press conference honoring this year’s recipients. “The national board certification brings with it the most rigorous evaluation of teaching skills that exists.”

Huberman was just as effusive at the press conference, calling national board certification the “gold standard.” He said, “Teachers are our front-line point of contact with students and their families. It is encouraging that so many of our teachers have taken the time and made the commitment to pursue their national board certification.”

So why did they fire Neater-DuBow?

It wasn’t last hired first fired—teachers were kept at her old school who hadn’t been there as long as she had. It wasn’t simple economics—some teachers who didn’t get laid off make more money than she did. And it surely wasn’t merit—as of last year, no other teacher at the school was nationally certified.

CPS officials say she shouldn’t take it personally. Thirty-three other certification recipients were laid off this summer. “There were very serious budget decisions that had to be made,” says Alicia Winckler, chief human capital officer. “No one takes this lightly.” Now Neater-DuBow is discovering that even for a nationally certified teacher, new jobs are scarce. She’s applied at three Chicago public schools listing vacancies for art teachers; she hasn’t received any callbacks.

Neater-DuBow went to the August 25 Board of Education meeting to plead her case. There was so much she wanted to say—how much she loved her job, her school, her kids—but she had only two minutes to say it all. “I got there early—at about 6:30 in the morning—to sign up to speak,” she says. “At about 12:30 or so I got my two minutes. I told them my story and asked them how they could lay off good teachers.”

At the meeting the board approved a new budget, which Huberman insists is balanced. As a result, Winckler says, CPS won’t have to hike class sizes, which means it’ll hire back all the teachers recently laid off on the grounds that expanded classes made them unnecessary.

But a CTU spokesperson points out that according to CPS’s own numbers, just 167 teachers were dismissed because of class size increases. That’s just under 13 percent of the 1,322 teachers let go.

It’s not clear exactly why Neater-DuBow was laid off. The message from her principal said she was let go for financial reasons. Her layoff letter said her position had been redefined. According to Winckler, “Redefinition occurs when sometimes a position has to be redefined to get in compliance with board policy or state rule.”

And what board policy or state rule was the reason for redefining Neater-DuBow’s position?”

“I don’t know the specifics of that case,” says Winckler.

In any event, teachers who were laid off because of redefinition will not be getting their jobs back, says Winckler.

According to Karen Lewis, there’s something Orwellian about a process that “redefines” good teachers out of their jobs without giving them an opportunity to defend themselves or any help finding a new job. Before she lost her job, Neater-DuBow saw an opening posted in the CPS Bulletin for someone to teach art and dance at Multicultural Arts High School. She supposed the job was for someone who’d be working alongside her. But then she was fired, at which point she supposed that’s how her job had been redefined. She e-mailed the principal asking for clarification—maybe she could fill the redefined job. “I know how to dance,” she says. But the principal didn’t write back. Monday evening, the situation got even stranger. Someone in CPS’s Office of Arts Education e-mailed her a list of all the arts openings in the system. There it was, waiting to be filled at Multicultural Arts High: the exact job she had just been “redefined” out of.

“It seems my position was kept open, after I’d been kicked out of it,” comments Neater-DuBow, “so that, presumably, my first-year principal could replace me with someone cheaper . . . and/or with someone without tenure. I’m sorry if that sounds judgmental, but I just can’t imagine any other explanation for all that has happened.”

At our deadline, Winckler hadn’t responded for comment on Neater-DuBow’s gone-one-day-and-back-the-next job position.

“It’s cruel—like they’re destroying people’s lives with the stroke of a pen,” says Lewis. “They see us as spreadsheets, not people.” Lewis sees redefinition as a sneak attack on the concept of tenure. “This is a way to go after tenure under the guise of an economic crisis,” she says. “We’re not going to back down on this—this is the proverbial line in the sand.”

Ultimately the courts may resolve the matter. The union filed a suit in federal court on August 2, challenging the layoffs on the grounds that CPS broke the union contract by violating its procedures for dismissing teachers. If the union wins the suit, hundreds of teachers, Neater-DuBow included, will be rehired with back pay.

All I can say is that if a nationally certified teacher is so unimportant to Huberman that it takes a court order to make him hire her back, CPS must have more great teachers than it knows what to do with.   

Ben Joravsky discusses his reporting weekly with journalist Dave Glowacz at