School District 219 officials defend hiring rule that critics say hampers teacher diversity

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After a Niles Township High School District 219 paraprofessional and substitute teacher was not considered for the full-time position she applied for, some students and other supporters say the district let slip a chance to hire faculty of color while the Dist. 219 leaders say the decision was a financial one.

Marla Isaac, Ph.D., applied for a full-time job as a freshman biology teacher, and thought she was being considered for the spot.

“I wasn’t aware of why my application wasn’t moving forward initially,” she said. “I didn’t get an email or call or anything from (human resources) saying that I don’t qualify. I was very surprised.”

Issac said she had to call for a meeting with the superintendent and human resources director to find out why she wasn’t being considered for the job.

While NTHS Dist. 219 Supt. Steven Isoye said he could not speak about individual personnel decisions, he acknowledged there is a restriction regarding hiring teachers who fall too high on the wage scale for certified teachers.

“We always try to hire on the younger end of the scale,” Isoye said.

A school district human resources memo dated March 9 sent to administrators — and obtained by Pioneer Press — instructs school leaders to “not interview any applicants who would be placed” at a wage higher than $68,165 upon hiring. That rate, according to the wage scale for the 2017-2018 school year, corresponds to a teacher with a master’s degree.

Isaac said she has worked full-time in the school district for three years, two as a paraprofessional at Niles North High School and the last year as a long-term substitute teacher at Niles West High School. She earned her doctorate in molecular biology from Northwestern University in 2013, she said, and makes about $34,000 annually as a paraprofessional, which includes a stipend.

She became certified to teach high school biology in March — roughly around the same time she applied for the freshman biology teacher job, she said.

If Isaac would have been hired for the freshman biology teacher position, her starting salary would have been over $72,000, according to the wage scale.

The Niles Township Federation of Teachers and Support Staff — the union — and school district negotiate the pay schedule, as part of collective bargaining, which is based on educational experience and longevity in the district, officials said.

Paraprofessionals — who often have a college degree but aren’t certified to teach — are part of the educational “support staff,” according to the NTHS Dist. 219 teacher’s union contract.

Isoye said at a school board meeting last month that the guidelines for hiring new teachers are examined every year. The district always seeks and hires qualified candidates, but “it’s important to show a fiduciary responsibility to the taxpayers,” he said.

“I recognize that our local property taxes are at rates that are higher than a lot of comparable districts,” Isoye said at the May 8 meeting. “There are multiple facets regarding the decisions we’re trying to make.”

Teachers union President Tim Miller said the district has “the right and the responsibility to do all the hiring and interviewing in the district.”

The collective bargaining agreement only dictates the pay schedule based upon a teacher’s education and work experience but does not limit the placement of a newly hired teacher based upon education, he said.

“Any policies that limit who may be interviewed or hired are entirely under the sole control of the [school] board,” he said. “The members of our union continue to work individually and collectively to encourage the district administration and board to recruit, retain, and develop a quality teaching staff that effectively reaches every student in our highly diverse community.”

But despite the school district’s financial rationale, students spoke out during the public comments portion of the meeting in support of Isaac as they lambasted the school district for, in their opinion, not seizing an opportunity to add to the school district’s racial diversity.

According to it’s Illinois State Board of Education report card, 1.6 percent of teachers in NTHS District 219 are black compared to 6.7 percent of students.

The percentage of Hispanic and Asian students well outnumber the percentage of teachers with the same background, according to the data.

More than 34 percent of students in the school district are Asian compared to just over 7 percent of teachers who are, the report card data indicates. About 15 percent of students are Hispanic, but less than 3 percent of teachers in the district are.

Students said that not only are there currently too few teachers of color in the school district, several have left in recent years.

Sulaiman Jalloh, a Niles North senior at the time he spoke at the meeting, said that in 17 years of schooling, he had only one teacher of color.

“Niles North has been a home to me and to many students of color but it has almost never in my whole high school experience represented how I look or how many black people look,” he said.

Murtaza Ukani, the Niles North class of 2018 student body president, said the district’s outreach efforts must improve.

“People of color in positions of power become mentors for students of color,” Ukani said. “Unfortunately in our district, there hasn’t been much done to bring justice to this truth.”

Longtime NTHS Dist. 219 teacher Heather Ingraham told the school board that saving taxpayer money is “a very necessary and commendable goal” but she said it can have “an accidental but still negative impact on people of color.”

Ingraham said reducing the humanities department leadership from six positions to four for next school year is an example.

“I wonder if the district considered the racial impact of that position, which threatened to unseat two directors of color,” she said.

Isoye said hiring teachers of color continues to be a goal and challenge for NTHS Dist. 219 as it is for many other school districts.

“When there is a limited applicant pool out there, and all the districts are targeting the same pool, that is an issue,” he said. “We have to continually actively get out there and try to diversify our pool.”

Issac said that after three years of working in the school district, she must now look for a job elsewhere.

She called the district “hypocritical” on the issue of hiring and retaining staff of color.

“They have one in front of their face asking for a position who has served the district for the last three years in and outside of the class,” she said.

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