A real-life “RIF” story

Published 10:11 am Wednesday, June 26, 2013

by James Ballard

May 30th was a day that I had been dreading, but also looking forward to at the same time. Dreading, because my FMLA leave was ending, and I was going to have to leave my wife and newborn son (born 4/29/13) at home and return to work, but looking forward to, because I was going back to a place that was my second home. Smithfield High has not only been my place of employment for the last six years, but a place that I have grown to love. The students, faculty and administrators that I worked with became like my second family.

I walked in the office that morning, and the first thing I saw was a picture I had emailed to another staff member of my son and I, from the hospital, the day after he was born, it was a great start to the day. Throughout the day, countless staff members, current students and former students approached and congratulated me on the birth of my first child. It made me believe I had made the right decision to come back and finish out the year. At approximately 2:15, I was asked to leave my class and come down to the office. I had no idea what was about to happen. I had attended a budget meeting, and new that potentially there would be layoffs looming for the county, but assumed Health and Physical Education was not a position that cuts could be afforded to be made. With class sizes already over thirty, and obesity a nationwide epidemic, it never crossed my mind that I was about to be one of the chosen ones to receive a “RIF” notice. As the news was being broken to me, I had a ton of thoughts and emotions running thru my head. Why me? What did I do? How am I going to take care of my wife and child? What about insurance? Am I the only one? The only explanation that I was given was that I was chosen to receive a “RIF” notice because I did not coach a sport. My wife and I found out in September that we were expecting, so I decided to take a year off from coaching to focus on my new bride and helping with everything that comes with preparing for a first child. Coaching a sport is not mentioned in any teaching contract that I have ever signed, so I had no idea that not coaching could/would ultimately cost me my job. As I stated then, I coached five of my six years at Smithfield, and in three of the years, I actually coached two sports. Ask any of my former players or my players parents, and I would venture to say that they would say I had done a pretty good job too, not just winning games, but helping raise up good young men and women. I was in shock. I was told I could leave for the day if I needed to, and boy did I. I am not ashamed to admit that my wife took the news much better than I did. I was so inconsolable by the time I got home, that my wife feared for several moments that a family member had died because I could not get the words out that I had lost my job. Not only was I hurting because I knew I would have to find a new job, but because I felt I had been betrayed by my family. For six years I had poured everything I had into educating the children of Smithfield, and now, I would no longer have that privilege.

In the days following this news, I was inundated with phone calls, text messages and emails expressing how deeply sorry and shocked everyone was that I would be forced to leave the Packer family. I was told by countless professionals things like, “You’re a great teacher”, “I’m sure something better will come your way” and “I don’t know what they were thinking”. It did make me feel good to know that there were a lot of people out there that had recognized my effort over the last six years. Which leads me back to my first question, why me? I had more years of service than other Health/PE teachers in the county, and in my building. I have nothing but outstanding evaluations from the administration of SHS, and not so much as one disciplinary action has ever been taken against me in six years. There are multiple PE teachers in the county that do not coach, and have never coached. So, why me? Could it be because in the middle of February, due to health concerns during pregnancy (anxiety and stress over the lack of concern for the way SPED issues were being handled by county administration), my wife resigned from her teaching position at Carrollton Elementary? Could it be because I was out on FMLA leave, and was an easy target since I had been absent? Surely there is more explanation than “You don’t coach.” I decided to seek legal counsel, and was told by a very well-respected Smithfield lawyer that I had a very winnable case for being wrongfully chosen, but that I would have to pay lawyer bills to get my job back. Paying to get my job back is not really a course of action I wanted to take. I was also told I could go before the school board and plead my case, but that I should not expect anything to come of that. Instead of jumping through hoops to try and get a job back from the very people that decided to let me go in the first place, I just want to let the people of Isle of Wight know what is really going on.

In the days since this news, I have been very busy. I have applied to almost every school district in Hampton Roads, as well as jobs outside of the education world. I have had time to sit back and really think about what is going on in Isle of Wight County, a county that I love, and it truly saddens me. While I am sorry that I have to leave my Packer family, I will always cherish and keep the friendships that developed during my tenure. To the students and parents that I have had the pleasure of working with over the last six years, I say thank you for welcoming me into your lives. I hope in some way, I was able to have a positive impact on you. I have no doubt that I, and my family, will land on our feet. The shock has worn off, and we are busy making plans to be successful in our future endeavors. The fearless leader of the IWCS schools has an email signature of “Yours in the pursuit of educational excellence”. I hear and read that her pursuit is now leading her elsewhere. I still believe in, and love this county. I love this county in the good and the tough times. As many of my elders have told me “When the going gets tough, the tough get going to Florida.” No, no, that’s not it, but close enough.

James Ballard is from Carrollton, Va., a former teacher at Smithfield High School and currently seeking a job.