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There is a lot to like in the way the administration and school board at Oak Park and River Forest High School have handled the passionate objections of many students and some parents over the annual Reduction in Force (RIF) process underway at the school.
There was a special meeting last Thursday. Another special meeting Monday evening after the deadline for our editorial page. School officials have done a good job listening to the concerns raised about a process which gives early warning to any and all teachers who may not be rehired for the fall term. The school rightly points out that something similar happens most every year and in most every school district as administrators make sure they have the right number of teachers for the right courses for the next semester.
This process, which is mandated by state school code, plays out with every part-time teacher, every teacher filling in for a teacher on leave, and several other non-tenured faculty getting an April notice that they are being RIFed. Many, sometimes most, of those teachers are rehired since the school will still need a part-time photography teacher or someone else in the math department will go on leave.
This year, seemingly because a handful of top — but non-tenured — teachers made the cut list, coupled with the juice provided by social media, a small number of devoted students have been able to spark respectful outrage over the RIFs.
It is unclear what the school might do beyond the normal process of RIFing and mainly rehiring. Perhaps there will be some creative jockeying to open posts for highly valued teachers. With $100 million in the bank, the high school has the resources to make some strategic rehires.
What troubles us is the state school code which does, in fact, force school districts to make such decisions based on seniority (tenure) rather than on performance in the classroom. This is an obsolete protection that saves the jobs of substandard teachers while ejecting young talent from schools at a time when it is vital. Given the universal recognition of the immense impact exceptional teachers can make in the lives of students, a process that rules out considerations of merit ought to be insulting to all the great teachers in our schools.
There are rumbles that Springfield might loosen this regulation. We will believe it when we see it. Meanwhile, as OPRF begins a strategic planning process — its first in decades — and moves toward a new teachers contract in the aftermath of planning, focusing strongly on merit as the basis for all educational decisions can move us past the strictures of some aspects of the RIF process.