Termination of School Social Worker Raises Questions about Residency Rule, Caseloads | WBEZ
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Termination of School Social Worker Raises Questions about Residency Rule, Caseloads

Propped up in a corner of Dan Coyne’s basement is a floor-to-ceiling copy of the front page of the Chicago Tribune from Christmas Eve five years ago.

There’s a picture of Coyne -- a Chicago Public Schools social worker -- dressed as Santa Claus at Pershing East Elementary School above the headline: “The stories that touched us in 2010.”

Coyne’s story? He had donated one of his kidneys to a relative stranger -- a woman who worked at the Jewel-Osco near his house in Evanston. Initially, it led to Coyne being put on notice by CPS for violating the district’s residency rule. But in the end, top officials waived the residency rule.

“(Then-CPS CEO Ron Huberman) said that I was a hero and that our 400,000 kids look at people like me as a model,” Coyne recalls.

But in a stark about-face, the Board of Education officially terminated Coyne last week. His last day will be June 24, 2016.


Residency Waivers: Who Gets Them, Who Doesn’t

The issue of Chicago’s residency rules comes up frequently. Ironically, on that same front page featuring Coyne five years ago, the top story was about the Chicago Board of Elections Commissioners deciding  that Rahm Emanuel met the residency requirements to run for mayor, despite having lived primarily in Washington, D.C. to serve as President Obama’s Chief of Staff.

Top CPS officials have frequently been awarded waivers. Most recently, Ronald DeNard, the district’s new senior vice president of finance, got a waiver because he lives in Flossmoor. Former Chief Operating Officer Tim Cawley had a waiver because he lived in Winnetka when first appointed. And while Barbara Byrd-Bennett lived in a corporate apartment on Wacker Drive, she also maintained residence at her home in a wealthy suburb of Cleveland, Ohio.

The district has awarded exemptions to certain hard-to-staff positions. Social workers were exempt from the residency requirement until 2005. Coyne was hired in 2002, and in his termination letter, the district admits it failed to notify Coyne that social workers were no longer exempt.

Coyne said when he was hired, the Board “didn’t mind that I lived in Evanston at all.”

A CPS spokesman sent WBEZ an email late Monday that said Coyne never had a lifetime waiver, because only the Board can grant waivers. It also said Coyne was notified in December 2013 and again in March 2014 that he was out of compliance with the residency policy.

In June 2014, a formal warning told him he would be terminated if he didn’t move to the city.  

The Caseload Left Behind

Speaking with WBEZ on Monday, Coyne said it’s disheartening to get the news just before the holidays, but he knows he’ll find work.

However, Coyne said he worries about how CPS staffs social workers and other specialty clinicians.

“I have 1,600 students,” Coyne said. “The state and national standard is a 1 to 500 ratio.”

“Our suburbs have a social worker or many social workers, a couple psychologists, an occupational therapist, a physical therapist in every building,” Coyne said. “We have some of our clinicians that have 18 schools. Can you imagine trying to provide services to 18 different schools?”

It’s a concern that spans well beyond Coyne’s termination. It’s something the Chicago Teachers Union has brought up at the bargaining table. CPS officials have said the union requested more than a thousand new social workers, nurses and clinicians, which would cost almost $103 million. The district is trying to close a $480 million budget hole for this school year and estimates next year’s shortfall at over $1 billion.

Dave Temkin is a CPS social worker assigned to two elementary schools. He said school social workers are now also filling in the gaps left in communities that have lost mental health services.

“We are running, singlehandedly, part-time social service agencies,” Temkin said. “We’re spread way too thin.”

The number of social workers employed by CPS was not immediately available and the almost 300 social work positions budgeted for last year appear to have shifted to another line in the district’s budget documents, making it difficult to compare.

Becky Vevea is an education reporter for WBEZ. You can follow her @WBEZeducation.

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