UNHappy Anniversary

It was 20 years ago today, that Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play.

Oops...still in my John Lennon/Beatles frame of mind!

(Looked it up...do you know that if we accept that line as true, it's actually been 61 years since Sgt. Pepper did his "teaching" stint! The album was released in 1967...ARGH!)

Let me begin again...

It was 6 years ago today, that Julie Newell got suspended without pay.

Referenced this incident in the Tale of Two Turkeys posting, but to mark this "special occasion", here are a few of the gory details.

Since I ALWAYS digress, I'll actually begin at the beginning to provide a synopsis of the (employment) "life and times" of Julie Jones Newell.

Julie actually got her work-life baptism by doing a stint with the Head Start program during the year between her graduation from Cairo High School in 1968 and beginning her 37-year career with the Cairo Public Schools.

As previously related, Julie Jones applied for a secretarial job at Cairo High School in September 1969 and was hired.

And, that's when her heartaches began...NOT!

Oh, the years would bring plenty of heartaches, but Julie truly loved her 25 years of employment at Cairo High School. So many life-long bonds of friendship were formed...many forged in the heat of battle.

Actually, there WAS a "honeymoon period"...literally and figuratively. This period was from Julie's hiring in 1969, through our marriage in 1973, until the teachers' strike for recognition at the beginning of the 1978-1979 school year. Hey, almost a decade!

The only real "bump" during that time period was when Julie and I got married. There was some serious talk at the time of physically separating us...that the marriage of an interracial couple in Cairo in the early 1970s and having them TOGETHER at the high school was too controversial and was NOT the proper role model. Our principal even called me into his office a couple of weeks prior to the 1973-1974 school year and informed me that I was being transferred to Cairo Junior High. However, the plug (somehow) got pulled on that plan and the two of us remained at Cairo High. (Probably, the principal went to bat for us. Julie was his personal secretary and I was a favorite teacher. He did not want to lose either of us...and he especially did not want to anger Julie!)

All was right with the (school) world...until August 1978. Okay, I lied. Things started getting a little testy during the previous year...or two.

The high school staff loved their principal. Yes, there was time when we were all on the same page. We had high standards for discipline and academics, and fought hard to maintain both. Cairo High School was a good place to work - providing a quality education that prepared our students for life, while maintaining a safe environment...at a time when all hell was breaking loose in the city.

What happened to change all of this?

The speculation at the time was captured in an analogy...of a "gunslinger" who comes into town to get rid of the bad guys, but when he's done...he turns on the good guys. During the first half of the 1970s, there were enough problems to keep all of us focused and working together...against a common enemy. The "enemy"...anything or anybody who would disrupt the educational environment that we had established.

However, as things became "routine"...the "gunslinger" could not adjust...could not stand "prosperity". The principal kept looking for problems...which created problems, between him and his previously supportive faculty. In fact, the previous year, the school board was going to remove him from his position..."kick him upstairs", for crossing swords with them. The high school faculty and staff circulated a petition of support, went to the next school board meeting and presented it. For whatever reason, the Board backed off. The principal was so appreciative that he framed the petition and hung it on his office wall. (In later years, a bounty was offered to anyone who could "borrow" the plague and return it to the high school faculty...for destruction. Unfortunately, no one ever collected.)

But...the show of support did not "mellow" him out.

The classic example of our ills came on a morning that the principal sent out a form for teachers to complete. The directions stated that "dots" should be placed "over" certain numbers/letters on the form. We were to remain in homeroom until the forms were collected.

And we waited...

...and waited. Must have waited for an hour...as teachers speculated as to what the hell was going on! (I think that it was on this occasion that one of the teachers that was on the second floor near the office got into it with the principal and walked out.)

We were finally released. At noon, we compared notes and found out that the "crisis" was that the principal did not like the way that some of the teachers placed the dots on the form and had sent them back to be corrected. (Placing the dot "over" the number/letter was interpreted by some to mean "above", while others interpreted "over" to mean "on top of", as in obliterating the number/letter.) One of our new teachers "brought the house down" during our follow-up discussion in the teachers' lounge. As each teacher related which of the two aforementioned methods had been used, this teacher was noticeably silent. Finally, someone HAD to ask..."Which way did you put your dots?" He paused, sheepishly looked up, and admitted...that he had used "X's".

This and a multitude of other incidents led to yet another petition...this one demanding the removal of the same principal we had supported with the previous petition. Of course, by then, the Board had reversed itself, supporting the principal against the increasingly "militant" teachers.

In this atmosphere came the teachers' strike of August 1978. The strike was really to secure recognition of the teachers' union. However, the high school principal (and the superintendent and the school board members) took it as a personal attack. Actually, the principal was probably justified...most of high school teachers felt that a union would strengthen them in their fight against the "abuses" of the principal.

I wasn't even a member of the union...had turned down their persistent invitations to join. During the summer of 1978, our principal made it plain to Julie that he was against the attempts to form a union. He also made it plain that Julie's husband had better not participate if, indeed, a strike were called.

On the eve of the strike, the union invited me to attend their rally...to hear their arguments in favor of a strike. I told them that I would attend - to be "informed" - but not to expect my participation.

Famous last words!

Reg Weaver, the current President of the National Education Association, was at the meeting in his capacity as Vice President of the Illinois Education Association. I got "Reggiecized". The man is a master at motivation...can flat rally the troops. As he asked the assembled teachers "Who is going to support this effort tomorrow?" and one by one the "old timers" rose and walked to the front to join Reg, I was "moved". So, the next morning, without even being a member, guess who was one of the first teachers on the picket line, right outside the high school principal's office, right outside my loving wife's office? Yeah...

Needless to say, Julie and the principal had words over the whole thing...after her husband had betrayed our former trust/relationship. Julie made it plain to the principal that she fully supported me and the teachers.

Now...that's where Julie's heartaches began!

The strike was successful...the Cairo Association of Teachers - CAT - was recognized as the exclusive bargaining agent for the certified personnel of Cairo School District Number One. (Julie would later join as the CAT's only ever noncertified member. Julie knew CAT could NOT "represent" her, but membership DID provide her with free legal services. Don't know why Julie felt like she would ever need the services of a lawyer???)

The Board of Education also got the message that the principal situation at the high school had to be resolved. (When he was unable to stop the strike - unable to control "his" teachers - he was no longer useful to them, only a source of repeated controversy.) The principal was still a force to be reckoned with, so rather than remove him outright, the Board of Education left him in place as principal, but brought in a "Curriculum Coordinator", who would have actual responsibility for the certified staff.

Since Julie was now an outcast, having supported me and the teachers against her immediate supervisor, the principal demanded a new secretary...and got one. What about Julie? Julie was slated for transfer to the Central Office, but she did not want to leave the high school...where her husband and friends were. Julie fought the transfer...asking to remain at the high school...as secretary to the incoming "Curriculum Coordinator"...a request that was eventually granted.

Well, the principal did not like THAT one bit...a "traitor" serving as secretary to the man who was "stealing" HIS faculty!

In the ensuing turf war, Julie's physical location became a key issue...just WHERE would she be located. If the principal could not get rid of Julie, then he damn well wanted to be able to keep an eye on the turncoat - demanding that she be located in HIS office complex. Needless to say, the new Curriculum Coordinator wanted "his secretary" to be located in his office. At one point in time, and I kid you not, it was suggested that Julie would be provided a desk in the HALLWAY, halfway between the principal's office and the Curriculum Coordinator's office! As usually happens, the "new hire" has "honeymoon" privileges...Julie was "allowed" to have a desk and work in his office.

The silliness did not end there! The following year, the new high school opened. The "defrocked" principal had no authority over teachers, but he WAS in charge of building and grounds. As such, he controlled "preferred" parking spaces. He awarded reserved slots to all of his office personnel, reluctantly giving the Curriculum Coordinator a slot...at the other end of the parking lot. Julie? Oh, but no...no reserved parking for Julie Newell!

Not one to go quietly into the night, Julie appealed the matter to the new superintendent. Having come from "white country", the new superintendent was NOT prepared to deal with a strong-willed, outspoken black female. Pity the fool! The superintendent actually had the nerve to tell Julie Newell that "Black people have made a lot of progress in recent years, but they just have to be patient." (Be patient for a damned reserved parking space?!) Don't remember what Julie's exact words were in response, but let's just say that Julie relationship with the new superintendent was somewhat strained from that day forward. No...Julie Newell "won't back down". (Julie DID get a parking space...at the other end of the parking lot, next to that of the Curriculum Coordinator.)

The 1980s and early 1990s brought a succession of principals to Cairo High School. We had our "good times" (most especially "Mac") and our "bad times" (take your pick!) Julie did her best to maintain "continuity", much to the appreciation of faculty and staff, but much to the chagrin of the "powers that be" who complained that "Little Miss Efficiency" was trying to "run the building". (The faculty and staff's reaction to THAT reaction was "Well, somebody needs to!")

Then came the 1994-95 school year...

In a reprise of the teachers' strike of '78, the effort by the secretaries/bookkeepers to organize a union touched off a new era of recrimination. And, of course, the figurehead of this effort was Julie Newell, newly elected president of the Cairo Association of Educational Support Personnel - CAESP. (The "Personnel" was later changed to "Professionals")

The CAESP was recognized through an election held in November 1994 and negotiations for a contract began shortly thereafter. "Coincidently", Julie Newell was transferred in May 1995 from her 25-year place of employment to Emerson Elementary.

Heartaches? Let the big ones begin!!!

This involuntary transfer prompted Julie's fight for "reasonable accommodation" due to her lupus condition under the Americans With Disabilities Act. Julie's doctors wrote letters to the District officially informing them of her condition and the inherent dangers of working in an elementary school...medical advice that was disregarded by the District.

Oh, they would "mouth" concern. To address the doctors' concern over Julie's contact with elementary students, the District agreed to move her out of the main office...putting her in the office adjoining the school nurse's office. Since the nurse was frequently absent due to scheduling, when a student was sent to the nurse's office, Julie would have to attend to the student and his/her illnesses and soiled clothing. Need I be more descriptive?!

And...Julie still did her "tour of duty" in the main office.

It was during one of these tours of duty - October 15, 1997 - that Julie almost died, suffering her first major flare of lupus. After assisting a student with an asthma treatment (using an ill-fitting mask belonging to an older sibling which allowed medication/fumes to escape into the office area), Julie became increasing dizzy and started having chest pains. Within a short period of time, an ambulance was called and Julie was transported to the hospital. (Her doctor told us the following morning that he had never seen a lupus patient in Julie's condition make it through the night!)

Julie would spend the next year at home...in bed...trying to recover...fighting for her life.

After a prolonged battle with the administration, we were able to win a (temporary) reasonable accommodation for Julie's return to work...allowing her to work at the Central Office from December 1998 through June 1999 - away from contact with elementary students.

In August 1999, the District arbitrarily withdrew its reasonable accommodation, ordering Julie to report back to Emerson Elementary...the "scene of the crime". The stress of being placed once again in harm's way - and having to make an appearance before the Board of Education to plead her case - caused yet another flare, forcing Julie to go on temporary disability.

In August 2000...same old, same old. Julie appealed to return to work - at the Central Office, where she had shown that she COULD work. Oh, but no! Report to Emerson Elementary...or be fired. After a bitter battle - involving an IEA attorney - the District decided to play their trump card, ordering Julie to see a doctor of their choosing in St. Louis. They figured this doctor would expose Julie for the "malingerer" that she was.

Be careful what you ask for! THEIR doctor ate them up...confirming Julie's "at risk" condition AND chastising them for sending her such a long distance for an examination when qualified medical personnel were located much closer to her place of residence.

Was the District moved? You know the answer to that!

The superintendent states that there were NO VACANCIES at the Central Office. Therefore, Julie Newell WOULD go to Emerson...out back...in the (rat infested) trailer known as the Emerson Teachers' Lounge.

The best laid plans of rats and men...

A long-time secretary at the Central Office retired at the end of the 2000-2001 school year. Oops...a vacancy!

Julie applied...what could they say? Oh, they said a lot...how she would have to give up her position on the Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund (IMRF) Board of Trustees if she wanted to work at the Central Office...had to be at work...ALL the time. They eventually backed off on that, "allowing" her to use her "vacation time" to attend the meetings. Aren't they so special?!

To their obvious chagrin, Julie accepted the job.

The superintendent did not want to give her - a 33-year employee - a key, but finally relented. (He HAD refused her a key during her previous six-month "stay" at the Central office.) Julie underwent various forms of harassment during the first semester. The superintendent would not fill her requisitions for office supplies. He would hold forms until the day before a deadline...just to make it harder for her to comply. In fact, he withheld a new "lunchroom form", to use her "failure to complete" as an excuse for reprimand/dismissal.

Then came Christmas 2001...

Julie put in for vacation time, so that we could take a trip to California during Christmas break and visit friends. Julie WAS a 12-month employee, and so she WAS required to work for some of the days. However, she let everyone know where she was going and turned in the proper paperwork. Bye...Merry Christmas!

As fate would have it, we hadn't been in California more than a couple of days and Julie got sick. We took her to the nearest hospital emergency room, where she was examined and admitted. So...Julie spent Christmas day in a hospital room. When she was released, we returned home early to recuperate.

Lo and behold, Julie gets a telephone call at home from the superintendent...accusing her of "job abandonment"! His premise was that SHE had not "called in sick". Actually, THAT was "my job"...I had told Julie that I would take care of it...and thought that I had. The superintendent also took Julie to task for not completing the new lunch form...the aforementioned form that he refused to give her! The superintendent ordered Julie to report to work the following Monday and attend a 10 a.m. "preliminary hearing" on possible dismissal as an employee of Cairo School District Number One!

To make a long story short...at least shorter, let me cut to the chase. There is not a doubt in my mind that the superintendent felt that he had been presented a golden opportunity...a "gotcha". He just KNEW that Ron and Julie Newell had gone to California and played "hooky"...that Julie wasn't sick! He finally had her right where he wanted her!

So, after the hearing, the superintendent issued his finding...Julie Newell was hereby suspended WITHOUT PAY pending an investigation for dismissal. (This is the same superintendent that was later suspended WITH PAY, when he was arrested for "allegedly" using the school district car to drive to his wife's lover's house and trying to shoot him! Go figure...)

Unknown to the superintendent in his haste to deliver his verdict, Julie had already turned in the "proof" that he had demanded during her hearing - proof that she had, indeed, been hospitalized. Oops!

So...what to do now? Admit a mistake? Recall Julie Newell? Not hardly!

Julie Newell continued to be suspended without pay and an "investigation" was conducted...FOR THREE MONTHS!

And, after three months, what did they find? My God...Julie Newell was obviously incompetent! (Yes, the same person who was previously labeled "Little Miss Efficiency" was now incompetent. Wish they would make up their minds!)

Exactly what were Julie Newell's crimes? Why, after three months, they were able to find a couple of documents that she had failed to paperclip! Oh, and they found ONE document on which she had NOT entered a date!

After 33 years? Hell, yes...fire her ass!!! (Sorry about that...yes, I'm STILL angry about the depth of that BS.)

And the worst part about it? The incompetence of the people who prepared the "exhibits" of Julie's crimes. Wish I had them handy...I'd attach them for your "enjoyment":

Hey, but don't sweat the small shtuff! Pesky little facts just get in the way of what we want to do! Full speed ahead!

And, so, on November 18, 2002, the Cairo Board of Education voted to fire Julie Newell...a 34-year employee with nothing but excellent evaluations and the rave reviews by her colleagues...for paperclips and dates, or lack thereof - knowing that stress would aggravate her condition and could possibly kill her!

So, from January 10, 2002 until late July 2004 - THAT'S 2 AND 1/2 YEARS - Julie Newell was suspended/fired. For two-and-one-half years, the District diverted attention and megabucks to fighting a losing legal case. In the end, the case never went to trial...the District simply allowed Julie to come back. We never really knew why, other than the obvious...that it was a losing case. I've always believed that the newly formed Financial Oversight Panel was behind pulling the plug on this misadventure...knowing that the District stood to lose BIG BUCKS if they went to trial and lost. The liability far outweighed the possible gain...getting rid of a highly competent but disliked (by the administration) employee.

(It is truly unfortunate that the same dynamics that finally brought sanity/settlement to the "Julie Newell Case" have not resolved two other similar cases that are currently draining the District's finances. I say similar, because the employees in question ALSO had nothing but excellent evaluations by their immediate supervisors and the admiration of their colleagues...until they asserted rights protected by law. These two cases were mentioned at Julie's funeral service, as the ministers officiating praised Julie for her support during THEIR "trials and tribulations" - crediting her with "ministering to the ministers", giving them strength during a moment of doubt. That's "so Julie"...she'd "been there, done that!" Must we keep repeating history?)

Julie's final two years of employment were a "mixed bag".

Julie developed a good working relationship with the individual who was superintendent upon her return. Oh, there were some initial sparks - two "old school" folks not sure of each other's "agenda". Julie had been "burned" by a succession of superintendents and so she came to work wearing her "game face". The superintendent had had his ears filled with stories about the Julie Newell "B". Quickly, however, each realized that they had a LOT more in common than differences...including a sense of humor. By the end of the year, parting was sweet sorrow...

...especially in light of what came next!

Fortunately for Julie, the previous superintendent "mediated" some early skirmishes between Julie and the new superintendent. They finally kept to their separate (across the hall) offices and agreed to disagree. (Unfortunately, the same didn't occur with the two aforementioned employees, who became the lightning rods for new superintendent's ire.)

In March 2006, Julie made her NEA "presentation trip" to Philadelphia, was hospitalized, diagnosed with colon cancer, and underwent surgery. The previous superintendent interceded on her behalf and "negotiated" her retirement "with honors" after 37 years of employment.

Although the following year was filled with hardship as Julie underwent chemotherapy treatments, at least she DID get to "enjoy" a year of retirement.

One special memory...

Julie enjoyed waiting for the moment when I came in to say goodbye before heading off for work. She would look up with a puzzled look and say "Oh, that's right...you're not retired...you have to go to work!"