Teacher Tim Burgess gets a hug after the Ottawa school board fired him today
In October of 2009 the good teachers of Ottawa, Illinois went on strike.
At the time I wrote a series of posts about the strike including this one:
I just got off the phone with Christy Hagemaster, the IEA organizer over in Ottawa. Ottawa is about 85 miles south west of Chicago off of I-80.
Ottawa teachers have been on strike three days. Christy said this is tough. All strikes are hard but this is definitely a hard one.
I’ve been on strike against a tough board, and it ain’t pretty.
I learned a thing about tough strikes. You can’t win if you don’t fight.
This is about people who want to teach kids about math, science, language arts and playing a good game of football. And now they find themselves walking a picket line because they can’t afford the health insurance that they need if their spouse or kids end up sick or in the hospital.
The people who teach your kids math, science, language arts and a good game of football are now teaching your kids a little something about fighting for simple justice. It is perhaps the most important thing we will ever teach.
On Monday at 4:30 at Washington Park in downtown Ottawa the teachers will hold a rally. The park sits on the corner of LaSalle and Jackson in Ottawa.
I’ll be there. I’ve been asked by the strike crisis team to say a few words.
I drove to Ottawa with the president of the Park Ridge Education Association and spoke words of solidarity at the rally.
Tonight I found out that there is collateral damage from that strike five years ago. It can be found in the persecution and firing of one of the strike’s leaders.
Citing recent “inappropriate and unprofessional” conduct and harassment — including criticizing one teacher’s hair style and calling another “little man” or “little guy” — as well as four past disciplinary actions, the Ottawa Township High School board of education fired veteran teacher and coach Tim Burgess at a special meeting Friday morning.
In a resolution calling for the firing, in addition to the hair style and “little man” harassment comments, Burgess was cited for a comment about a “head slap,” saying that he knew a teacher “was all over underage girls,” violating the terms of prior disciplinary write-ups and that “he also engaged in dishonesty.”
Voting for the dismissal of Burgess, an OTHS faculty member for 26 years, were Tim Creedon. Karen Fisher, Don Harris and Anita Kopko, who participated by telephone. Gene Duffy voted against, Bill Byczynski abstained and George Shanley left before the vote to attend a funeral.
The audience of more than 100 students, teachers and community members — which appeared stunned by the vote — only minutes earlier has stood and applauded Duffy’s criticism of the dismissal proposed by Superintendent Matt Winchester.
Duffy said in his opinion the board and administration wanted to fire Burgess for being an outspoken member of the teachers’ union, and cautioned against the action.
“It is my opinion that with him gone fear will permeate through the halls of OTHS and the ‘my way or the highway’ form of management will rear its ugly presence,” Duffy said.
“Here at OTHS, it is my opinion, management wants status quo every day,” he said. “Status quo is stale and lazy.”
Duffy, himself the board’s maverick member, termed Burgess a “renegade” and said the high school needed more like him.
“Pardon me for encouraging the renegade, but (former Chicago Bears quarterback) Jim McMahon was a renegade, yet (Coach) Mike Ditka has the leadership skills to take that attitude to win a Super Bowl (in 1986),” Duffy said.
“It is my opinion that our children need to be taught by teachers who are not afraid to be themselves or challenge authority. Those challenges could and should be embraced by our administration, to reinvent our focus daily.”
Duffy downplayed Burgess’ four early disciplinary actions as “personality issues” generated by the “emotional area” of high school sports situations.
Duffy, his voice cracking at the end of his comments, said firing Burgess was inappropriate.
“This poor board member will have no part of changing this man’s life over a petty comment that did not include vulgarity, nor sexist nor racist and said in the closed doors of a union meeting.”
Other board members made no comments during the meeting. Afterward Winchester declined to comment, which has been his past policy in regard to sensitive personnel issues.
Burgess said under advice from his legal advisers he had no comment.
The board deliberated the action against Burgess for an hour, at one point calling in Burgess and Illinois Education Association UniServ Director Stacie Walton, the liaison with the district’s teachers union, the Ottawa Township High School Education Association.
Before the closed session, Walton spoke at the meeting. She said Burgess has been persecuted by district officials since his involvement with the 2009 strike, which shut down the high school, and that he “has existed under a microscope.”
She characterized faculty discipline at OTHS as harsh, using the issuance of disciplinary Notice to Remedy letters as an example.
“In the approximately 70 different school districts where teachers are represented by my office, only seven Notice to Remedy letters have been issued,” she said. “Five of those seven were to Ottawa High School teachers and were written by Matt Winchester. Every time I read or hear comments from this superintendent or this board regarding their denial or confusion of why teachers here are afraid to speak up, I think of those five Notice to Remedy letters.
Walton said the firing was Winchester’s revenge for Burgess leading the union in a vote of no-confidence on Winchester three months ago.
Walton said the charge that Burgess “engaged in dishonesty” stemmed from his denial of certain conduct and claiming he could not recall whether it happened.