Seniority and layoffs: the “skip vote”

One of the biggest topics of discussion during the 2012 election cycle for the Board of Education (four seats are up, with three incumbents running, including me) has been the Board’s vote on February 28 to set aside seniority for–or “skip”–70 teachers in 14 schools that have persistently underperformed the rest of the district and/or are majority African-American, Latino or Pacific Islander, in order to protect those teachers from seniority-based layoffs.

With that vote, I agreed with the Superintendent’s argument that these teachers possessed special training to justify skipping.  I explained my thinking at the time in this post written the day after the vote, and again in August during an interview with the Bay Guardian:

I had a very hard time with this vote, and so did the other four Board members who voted the same way I did. When you watch video of the Feb 28 meeting (see below for an edited version; the full meeting is viewable here with the layoff discussion beginning at about 90 minutes in), you can see the emotion on all sides.

The Board’s action was eventually disallowed by an administrative law judge,* and almost all teachers were eventually recalled from layoffs, but the  fallout has continued. Our teachers’ union, United Educators of SF, was so angry at our action that its members did not endorse any incumbents for the November election. And though there are manymany other issues to weigh this year, the “skip vote” has become the defining issue because for many people it exposes a conflict between labor rights and the rights of children in some of our most troubled  schools. Others, especially the UESF leadership, believe the labor vs. children argument is a false choice.

I have written about the legal requirements for “skipping” teachers in a seniority-based layoff; the state requires districts to lay off teachers strictly according to hire date unless they can establish that the teachers they propose to skip have “special skills and competencies” that justify their remaining employed even as their more senior colleagues are let go for economic necessity. When the issue of skipping teachers first arose, back in March 2010, the district was being criticized by teachers at some schools — well, El Dorado Elementary in particular — for the impact layoffs were having at some schools (most of them low-performing, with many low-income and high-need students) as opposed to others.  At the time, I argued that we could not legally skip teachers at hard-to-staff schools like El Dorado, much as we might want to, because teachers had not been required to demonstrate those “special skills and competencies” as a condition for being hired but instead were expected to learn those special skills once they were placed in a hard-to-staff school.

Then, several things changed. First, for the 2010-11 school year, the district created the “Superintendent’s Zone,” and gave the 14 “Zone” schools additional resources, staffing and professional development in an attempt to reverse their decades-long pattern of under-performance .  Second, in September 2010 we learned that 10 of the Zone schools–most of them in the Mission–had been awarded “School Improvement Grants”  (SIG) with generous funding but serious strings attached.   Ultimately, the Superintendent made a persuasive argument that the district had invested millions of dollars in training and coaching Zone school teachers  and that those investments were paying off in our academic results.

*The administrative law judge’s opinion was not binding on the district, but we almost certainly would have faced an expensive, lengthy court battle with UESF had we not accepted the finding, so after the decision was issued in May, the Board chose to proceed with layoffs strictly by seniority. Interestingly, Sacramento City Unified received a similadecision in a very similar case this year, and chose to fight it out in court

Press coverage of the “skip vote” and its political fallout:

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