Longtime social worker dismissed from Maercker Elementary District 60

Maercker Elementary District 60 Board members listened to about 40 people speak Monday in support of longtime district social worker Debbie Collins, before voting to dismiss her at the end of the school year as part of a reduction in force.

Collins, who has worked in the district since 1985 and works at Westview Hills Middle School, was one of five teachers approved by the board for “honorable dismissal.” She was the only one about whom there was support voiced during public comment. Of the people who spoke in support of Collins, all but a few were current and former District 60 teachers and staff.

Board President Lisa Bishop voted in favor of the dismissals as did board members Beth Nodus, Art Andersen and Patty Dieball. Mike Gombosi cast the only vote against the dismissals. Amy Sullivan was absent.

“I’m comfortable with this decision, but not happy with it,” Bishop said of the approval to let Collins go. “This is as difficult as suspending a student.”

Bishop said she was comfortable with the decision because of Senate Bill 7, which passed in 2011 and eliminates tenure and seniority as the primary determinants for the order in which teachers and staff are to be laid off.

“Therefore, when making decisions regarding reduction in force, the board is obligated to follow state law, which requires our decisions to be based on performance-based evaluations,” Bishop shared in a prepared statement from the board.

While Collins received glowing reviews Monday during public comment, it was a review of “needs improvement” from Westview Hills Principal Sean Nugent for the 2011-12 school year that provided the basis for her being dismissed, Collins said.

Christine Hotchkin, a former District 60 teacher who retired in 2012, said Collins was reviewed by Nugent as “being proficient” for the 2012-13 school year, but the average of Collins’ two-year rating left her as the odd person out for the staffing of three social worker positions in the district.

“I was hopeful before this meeting, but seeing my name on the agenda was the writing on the wall,” Collins said, adding she has been in discussions with the Maercker Education Association, a group that represents District 60 teachers, about a possible lawsuit.

Megan Casey, co-president of the Maercker Education Association, said rules and procedures for the reduction in force were not followed properly.

“We spent a lot of time meeting with the administration in hopes of finding an alternative,” Casey said.

Along with questioning the legality of the procedure used in Collins’ dismissal, age discrimination also may be charged, Casey said.

“These are things we’re looking into before deciding what we will do next,” said association co-president Mary Beth Bleifuss.

Collins submitted a letter to the board in January of her plans to retire after four more years in the district. She was scheduled for an additional 6 percent salary increase in her final four years, as per contract. Her current salary is $105,344.

“Not only does this leave me in the position of having to find a new job after 29 years here, it also affects my pension,” Collins said. “I’ve been planning for my retirement knowing that there would be a 6 percent bump in pay for those last four years, which would have increased my pension.”

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