I haven’t written about this case in the context of our own layoffs here in San Francisco, but education policy wonks around the state have been closely watching a case filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) against the Los Angeles Unified School District; the case alleges that the disproportionate impact of layoffs at three LAUSD middle schools violates the civil rights of low income students and students of color who make up the enrollment at those schools.
Late this afternoon, the judge in the case issued a preliminary injunction blocking the layoffs. Potentially, this injunction could have a major impact, since there is already a statewide conversation going on over the impact of seniority in widespread layoffs. California school districts could lay off as many as 26,000 teachers this year — we have little choice after years of cuts to education funding, and no relief in sight. Since state law requires school district to lay teachers off in order of seniority, hard-to-staff schools filled with less senior teachers are disproportionately affected.
I think it’s misguided to gut seniority policies wholesale — some of the current rhetoric around the country smacks more of union-busting than educational reform — but I would support changes to the Education Code allowing school districts to negotiate protections for fragile school communities that would otherwise be decimated by seniority-based layoffs.
Everywhere I look these days, there is another bill on teacher seniority and evaluation. New York’s legislature is considering a bill that would gut seniority provisions in that state’s education code, and I just saw another article on a big fight brewing in Colorado over teacher evaluation and tenure. (Arizona banned seniority entirely last year, but then again, that’s Arizona for you). California’s foray into this discussion comes in the form of SB 955, a bill introduced by Republican Bob Huff of southern California. The California Teachers Association and other labor groups adamantly oppose the bill, which is supported by Governor Schwarzenegger, the California Charter Schools Association and Education Trust-West. It narrowly passed out of the Senate Education Committee (5-4) last week.
At Tuesday’s Board meeting, Commissioners will hear an analysis of SB 955, and consider which alternatives to this bill, if any, the district might support. As a practical matter, SB 955 is highly unlikely to pass in its current form in our overwhelmingly Democratic legislature — as an “urgency” statute, it requires a 2/3 vote. Still, it’s clear that there is political traction for California to weigh in on the national conversation happening on teacher seniority and evaluation, and I’m told that an alternative bill is likely to be introduced by a Democratic sponsor. If that happens, it will be important for the Board to have a position on what provisions should be included or dropped.
Here are key provisions in SB 955:
- It would change the notification timeline for teacher layoffs. Currently, districts must issue a March 15 “intent to lay off” notice, and then a permanent notice on May 15. Even if an employee receives a permanent notice, the district can later call them back, but the danger is always that some staff will accept other employment before that happens. The other problem is that late state budgets extend the school district’s uncertainty about our own budget until well after March 15. This bill would eliminate the need for a March 15 notice, which I actually think is a good idea — I think it saves employees from needless stress in years (unlike this one) where budget uncertainties led us to issue far more March 15 notices than were ultimately needed.
- The bill would allow districts more flexibility in determining the order of layoff based on need and evaluation and allowing entire sites to be skipped. I think this goes too far in gutting the seniority system but it would be great to have some ability to limit the effect layoffs have on the hard-to-staff schools — it’s crazy to have two-thirds of the staff at a school facing layoff at the same time.
- The bill would also grant school districts wide latitude in assigning or transferring teachers to sites based on effectiveness and subject matter need rather than seniority.
- The rights of teachers to ask for hearings after dismissals or layoffs would be curtailed, along with changes to other provisions concerning those hearings.
I have to say that gutting the seniority system is a solution in search of a problem. Giving senior teachers more job security isn’t a bad thing in and of itself, as long as we are regularly evaluating and adequately supporting those teachers. I do think it’s a good idea to re-examine the timelines for notifying staff of layoffs, in order to better align those timelines with our budget process. Finally, I’m sympathetic to the plight of junior teachers at hard-to-staff schools and would welcome the ability to introduce some safeguards to staff who want to work at such schools, but I continue to think the best solution would be to address the challenging conditions at these schools so that they aren’t so hard to fill in the first place. Last week, Deputy Superintendent Carranza proposed a “clustering” system for district resources that seems like a good step in that direction.
My commenters from El Dorado Elementary have angrily alleged that the district chose to focus the brunt of layoffs on hard-to-staff schools, pointing to a legal precedent in the case of Bledsoe v Biggs Unified School District (2008) 170 Cal. App. 4th 127 (skip to page 8 for the discussion of the case).
The teachers say this precedent gives our district the right to skip certain teachers without respect to seniority, and say that the fact that 60 percent of the staff at El Dorado (or 67 percent of the teachers, depending on what you use as the base of your percentages) received pink slips shows that the district has abandoned the ideals of “Beyond the Talk.”
Strong words. I haven’t appreciated some of the accusations that have been leveled at me (for example, that I was spreading “misinformation” because I used the 60 percent figure), but whatever. They’re angry, they’re facing the loss of their jobs, and they’re mourning the likely breakup of a dedicated and idealistic staff team– so I guess I can take it. I did, however, ask the district’s legal counsel for an opinion on how Bledsoe v. Biggs applies to our current situation. Are the El Dorado elementary teachers correct that we have ignored a legal precedent that would save teachers currently working at hard-to-staff schools?
In a word, according to our general counsel, no. Here’s why:
- In the Bledsoe v Biggs case, the district “skipped” teachers at its community day school (a school for students expelled from other sites). A more senior teacher asserted the right to bump. Notably, the court found that the senior teacher was both credentialed and competent to hold the position. However, the district successfully avoided the bump by showing that the more junior, skipped teacher possessed unique training and experience for teaching in that environment that the more senior teacher did not possess. At our hard-to-staff schools, we do not currently require that teachers have special training or credentials to take a position. They do receive additional professional development and stipends after they begin teaching at a hard-to-staff school, but we do not require that professional development as a condition for beginning employment at the school.
- We have instituted “skips” for particular kinds of “hard-to-fill” subjects or credential areas: BCLAD (bilingual), special education, and single-subject math or science credentials, for example. But even within those skipped areas, more senior teachers have bumping rights. As an illustration, last week I was contacted by a special education teacher who could not understand why he received a pink slip. After the Human Resources department investigated, we were told that because there are administrators who received pink slips that also hold a special education credential, those employees could conceivably have the right to “bump” into special education classroom jobs to avoid a layoff. Hence, a handful of special education teachers still received pink slips despite the skip (the teacher who contacted me was senior enough that after the investigation, HR rescinded his layoff even though they concluded he was properly noticed in the first place). The bottom line: a job at one of our hard-to-staff schools is not the same–in the eyes of the law–as a job in a hard-to-fill area, in terms of the specific training and credential required. In addition, more senior teachers who hold the same credential as the “skipped” employee are still able to “bump” into his or her position in a layoff. Since teachers at hard-to-staff schools hold the same credential as their colleagues at other schools, they would not be protected from being skipped in a layoff because they could still be bumped by more senior teachers who received layoff notices.
- As noted above, teachers are only permitted to bump into position that they are credentialed and competent to fill, and the district does have broad authority to decide what “competency” is for its teachers. Recently, for example, we decreed that all teachers employed by the district must have the CLAD credential (now required by the state for any teacher who works with English Language Learners). As a result, teachers who earned a credential before the CLAD was required (and did not go back and get the CLAD certification later) are no longer “competent” to teach in our district. However, competency criteria must apply equally to all staff. A competency requirement that would protect staff at hard-to-staff schools (such as requiring experience teaching in a hard-to-staff school) would result in finding the majority of the District’s staff to be not competent. Such a requirement would probably not survive a legal challenge.
The fact that I think the counsel’s analysis is sound does not mean I like it, or that I think it’s fair that 67% of El Dorado’s teachers received pink slips. I think we should work on a side agreement with UESF that would enable us to go as a team to the legislature and request a legislative solution that saves teachers who choose to work at hard-to-staff schools. I am also following the national conversation on alternative ways of conducting layoffs, and I hope there is a way that our labor unions will feel they can eventually participate in such a conversation (probably now is not the best time, since we are in the midst of a very difficult negotiation). Seniority is a major pillar of the labor movement, and it’s not the cause of all the ills in our schools –it’s not helpful to to blame our labor contracts for disproportionate layoffs at hard-to-staff schools, just as it isn’t helpful to blame the district for the sad situation we’re in.