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OTTAWA — Ottawa Township High School reduced its teacher force by one; it did not vote to eliminate the building trades program, according to a school board member’s email obtained by the NewsTribune.
The distinction is important because, if the email is valid, then the board opens itself up to possible action for violating “Reduction-in-Force” procedures outlined in its collective bargaining agreement with the teacher’s union.
Validation would come if the board on April 21 agrees to enter the March 17 meeting minutes into the official record as stating the motion on the board floor was to approve a reduction-in-force by one teacher instead of a motion to eliminate the building trades program as reported by multiple area news outlets and recalled by attendees at the meeting.
Board member Anita Kopko in an email dated March 24 wrote to superintendent Matt Winchester and board members Don Harris, George Shanley, Bill Byczynski and board chairman Tim Creedon.
In the email, she described a conversation she had with students in a private meeting concerning the elimination of the building trades program and subsequent student protests.
“I told (the student) that I only had one correction. I told (the student) that we did not terminate the Building Trades program. All we did is layoff the teacher. Now, of course, without some additional action on our part, there will be no one to teach the class come fall,” Kopko wrote.
“However, it is within our ability to re-call Mr. (David) Keely or to hire a new teacher for the class. The (students) and their parents were very surprised to learn that the decision we made was a personnel decision and not a decision to scrap a whole component of the vocational education offered at the high school.”
On Friday, Kopko confirmed she had written the email. She also said board members and the public are confused about the specific vote the board made during the March 17 meeting.
“I don’t think the motion on the floor was to terminate the program,” she said. “The motion was to approve the reduction in force proposal, which meant reducing the staff by one teacher. The effect is that without a teacher, we can’t have a program.”
Kopko also said she and Creedon had argued about what exact decision the board had made days after the meeting, and that he had changed his opinion.
“There is some disagreement about what happened, but the minutes will reflect that our decision was an RIF (Reduction-in-Force),” she said.
The board will vote to approve the March 17 meeting minutes during its next meeting on April 21.
If the official record states the vote was a reduction in force, then the school district will have violated the following agreements in the CBA contract:
* The superintendent must consult with the Ottawa Township High School Education Association for its input on such recommendations (in this case, reduction-in-force).
* A Reduction-in-Force Joint Committee consisting of an equal number of administrators appointed by the district and teachers approved by the association will be created to address the RIF proposal.
OTHSEA president Wendy Sheridan said the administration and board did not contact the teacher’s union and that an RIF committee was never created.
Sheridan said the union is contacting its Illinois Education Association UniServ director for guidance.
“We need to go upstairs and find out what to do next on this,” Sheridan said.
More to the story? The end of Kopko’s email points to the possibility the administration already had begun manipulating building trades enrollment numbers to force either the elimination of the building trades program or its instructor, Dave Keely, well before the March 17 board meeting.
Kopko’s email stated the students who had spoken to her claimed they knew of students who were told that they shouldn’t sign up for building trades because it wasn’t likely to be offered next year.
“This was before any decision on the matter was brought to us,” Kopko wrote. “And if declining enrollment was a reason for laying off the teacher, that was apparently being manipulated before the matter got to us (the board).
“So I think we should be talking about these issues as well as deciding whether we are going to advertise for applications for building trades teacher next year.”
Kevin Caufield can be reached at (815) 220-6932 or email@example.com.
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