A greeting, passed along in a coffee shop:
"Hey, I haven't seen you in a long time."
"How are you?"
"Just like you—waiting to see if I'll still have a job."
A long silence followed by a laugh that sticks in the throat and sounds like a last gasp.
Those were two Dallas Independent School District teachers, only days ago. But they do not want their names used. No teacher interviewed for this story wanted his or her name used. They have all heard the stories, some have even lived them, and they are terrified: tales of principals telling teachers they're about to be out, courtesy a $84 million bungle down at DISD headquarters. Tales of warnings not to protest at 3700 Ross Ave. unless you want to wind up on a list—we're watching. Tales of administrators willfully misinterpreting teachers' comments just to create the perception of a problem.
The teachers' representatives at Alliance AFT and National Education Association-Dallas have promised them that this will not be allowed to happen. They were assured at last Thursday's meeting of the DISD trustees, at which the board voted to lay off 550 of the district's 11,595 teachers, that the firings will take place according to certification, evaluations and seniority, as per district policy.
The teachers do not believe it.
"There's still the perception of retaliation—the [reduction in force] is based on retaliation—'I'm going to get rid of who I like' instead of using evaluation and tenure," says one veteran of the district since the 1970s. "Do we feel like they're letting the wrong people go in the schools? Yes, we do...[and] the majority of the people in the buildings are so afraid for their jobs right now, they're afraid to talk to anybody. A few have volunteered to go down and picket and march and walk and rally, but comments have been made, 'I'm gonna send somebody down there to see who's there. Those are the ones I can get rid of.' Doesn't matter some of those just happen to be some of the better teachers in the building."
Several of these teachers have been through what the district calls a reduction in force—or RIF—before, in the early 1990s and then again five years ago. But never before has there been one this drastic: Beginning October 15, school administrators will begin telling contracted teachers they will be paid, with benefits, through January 16, but to get paid, the teachers must agree not to appeal their dismissals. Four hundred of those axed will be instructors in the so-called "core" classes—science, math, social studies and language arts teachers in a district in which math and sciences classes are already packed because of the scarcity of certified instructors.
Since news of what initially was called a $64 million budget shortfall broke on September 10, teachers have become part-time management consultants, poring over the district's bloated organizational chart, scouring the pages for higher-ups they consider inconsequential, incompetent. A month ago, two pages began circulating that contain the top 100 salaries within the district, whereupon several teachers discovered, among other things, a recently dismissed principal now making $100,000 as one of four assistant principals at another high school. District officials say those positions also are being targeted next week.
The teachers want answers: How did this happen? Who is responsible? Who will be accountable? They want Superintendent Michael Hinojosa out. But mostly, they want their jobs. That is why they are panicked. Angry. Disgusted. Betrayed. And, yes, even paranoid, but only because someone is out to get them.
"There is so much anger and frustration that this debacle is being carried out on their backs," says Rena Honea, second vice president of Alliance AFT. "They're not the ones responsible, but they're taking the heat to the extent they're losing their jobs and livelihood because of someone's incompetence."
Or, says one teacher, "What we've given to the district, and now they're saying, 'Shit on you...'"
When the board finally met to do the bloodletting at the end of last week, it did so in the comparative safety of a small meeting room with seats for only a few dozen onlookers. Several hundred teachers and parents who had come to district headquarters on Ross Avenue to witness the proceedings had to watch television monitors in the main board room across the hall. They sat in folding chairs facing a rank of unpopulated thrones on the board's grand but empty dais.
It was no accident the teachers and parents were shut out of the real meeting. Board member Ron Price had told a reporter the night before that the board would not meet in its own large meeting room because "we don't want to have to hear people calling us assholes."
When the reporter suggested conducting the meeting in the little room might be viewed by some as cowering, Price said, "Too bad."