Monday, May 03, 1999

Teachers get news by mail: You're fired

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        For the past two years, Cincinnati Public Schools has tried to create a neighborly feeling by establishing neighborhood schools and allowing neighborhood decision making.

        But look at the bad-neighbor policy it used against Colleen Montondo.

        She teaches seventh-grade English at Shroder School in Kennedy Heights.

        Last week, Ms. Montondo was terminated. At the end of the school year, she's out of a job.

        She received her notice in the mail at home. It's cold. It's impersonal. But it's school policy. So much for that neighborly feeling.

        Colleen Montondo didn't do anything wrong. In fact, the second-year teacher represents what is so right about Cincinnati Public. She's dedicated, arriving early and leaving late.

        Three days before she was fired, Ms. Montondo learned that two of her seventh-graders won a districtwide contest, “The Dream Big Essay Contest” sponsored by the Tiger Woods Foundation.

        “I was,” she told me, “on top of the world.”

        Then she hit rock bottom. Her termination notice, signed by Deputy Superintendent Rosa Blackwell, showed up in the mail at home.

        Before opening the envelope, Ms. Montondo thought it might contain a letter of congratulations. “I thought the human resources office was congratulating me for having two students win the Tiger Woods essay contest.”

        Instead, the letter began: “It is with regret ....”

        And ended with: “We appreciate the services you have provided to the students of our district.”

        The schools have a funny way of showing their appreciation.

Howdy, neighbor
        Treating a good teacher like this runs counter to the steps the school district has taken in recent years to humanize and improve education.

        Cincinnati Public has tried to make the educational process more neighborly by giving more emphasis to neighborhood schools — to boost sagging test scores — and granting more responsibility to individual schools through the Local School Decision Making Committees, which go under the acronym: LSDMC.

        Each school has an LSDMC. The committees are designed to give parents, teachers and community members a say in what goes on at their local school.

        While the LSDMCs have been around since 1990, their responsibility has grown in recent years. At first, they dealt with relatively minor matters such as school starting times and picking an educational theme (transportation, the economy, etc.) for a school year. Now, they're into serious subjects. For the first time, LSDMCs formulated each school's budget for 1999-2000.

        The schools' budgets — designed to reflect $20 million in cuts — and the district's lack of money are the reasons teachers are being laid off.

        So if schools are running themselves, and the emphasis is on people-to-people communication, why are teachers like Colleen Montondo being fired by mail?

        Rosa Blackwell admitted to me that firing by mail goes against the grain of Cincinnati Public's new effort to create neighborly feelings.

        “That is an unacceptable process,” she said. “We value our customers, internally and externally.”

        She noted that since Ms. Montondo spoke at a board of education meeting and told of her firing by mail, the termination policy has changed. Now the principal tells the teacher in person, “gives them the letter. Then, sits with them. We have to be sensitive and caring and supportive.

        “The old policy,” she added, “is gone, never ever to return.”

Wants to go back
        The most amazing thing to me about all this is not the impersonal way Cincinnati Public Schools treated a valued employee. It's that the valued employee wants to go back to work for this district.

        “I'd come back in an instant,” Colleen Montondo told me. “I love my school and I love my kids.”

        When it comes to being fired by mail, she's glad she helped change the policy. “But there never should have been a policy like that in the first place.”

        It just wasn't neighborly.

        Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.