Tuesday, March 08, 2011

WILL LAUSD LAYOFFS BE A MODEL?: Appeals court refusal to delay settlement means districts not totally tied to seniority-based system

By John Fensterwald - Educated Guess | http://bit.ly/hJdu4i

Posted on 3/08/11 • An appeals court on Monday refused to delay a settlement that will shield children in 45 low-income schools in Los Angeles Unified from layoffs that would create havoc with their education. With a March 15 deadline a week away for teacher layoff notices statewide, the big question is whether other districts will follow the lead of Los Angeles Unified and protect their most vulnerable children as well.

Districts have a model in the deal reached between LAUSD and attorneys representing students most victimized by the yearly churn of teacher layoffs. They also have a District Court judge’s decision last year empowering them to deviate from standard seniority-based layoffs under state law when children’s right to equal educational opportunity is adversely affected. What districts need is the fortitude to act on those children’s behalf.

The Sacramento Bee reported that Sacramento City Unified Superintendent Jonathan Raymond plans to prevent disproportionate layoffs at six academically troubled schools where the district has made a special effort to recruit teachers. But other districts haven’t indicated whether they planned to capitalize on Judge William Highberger’s landmark ruling.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, the Public Counsel Law Center, and the firm Morrison & Foerster filed the suit in the LAUSD case. Public Counsel lead attorney Catherine Lhamon wouldn’t say whether attorneys plan to sue additional districts in coming weeks. She did say that she and attorneys have asked districts about their plans.

Last year, Gov. Schwarzenegger and State Board of Education President Ted Mitchell sided with plaintiffs in the LAUSD case, even though the state also was named in the suit. United Teachers Los Angeles opposed the deal that district administrators and plaintiffs’ attorneys reached on the grounds that it violated seniority rights under state law and the teachers’ contract.

Under the deal, 45 lowest-performing schools and those showing signs of academic improvement will be protected from layoffs this year. The district will set a cap on the percentage of teachers that can be laid off in the remaining schools. The practical effect will be that teachers with the same years of experience may get layoff notices in one school with lots of veteran teachers but not another school with less experienced teachers.

Unlike his predecessor Jack O’Connell, who took no position on the lawsuit, the new Superintendent of Public Instruction, Tom Torlakson,  filed briefs opposing the settlement and calling for delaying its implementation, because of the settlement’s “far reaching, unintended consequences throughout the state.”

There’s no question that the issue is complex. Layoffs ideally would be partially based on a credible system of teacher evaluations. But the lack of such a system in California is no justification for inaction. Districts know which schools would be devastated by seniority-based layoffs – like the middle school in LAUSD in which 72 percent of the staff, mostly relatively new teachers, got layoff notices. Districts know which low-performing schools, under new leaders and turnaround strategies, show promise of academic improvement but need more time.

This month promises to be particularly tragic for teachers. Because of uncertainty over the state budget, districts may issue layoff notices to tens of thousands of teachers ­– many thousands more than will be let go if  Gov. Jerry Brown succeeds in getting state tax extensions on the ballot and voters to approve them in June.  Teachers will have the possibility of losing their jobs hanging over their heads for much of the summer.

No legislative fix for now

Last fall, a bill that would have partially resolved the issue statewide died after passing the state Senate but failing to make to the full Assembly for a vote. SB 691 would have required that the percentage of teacher layoffs in the lowest performing schools be no higher than the average for all schools in their districts. The sponsor, Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, hasn’t reintroduced it, so it’s every district for itself, for now.

Last month, the Education Trust-West issued Victims of the Churn: The Damaging Impact of California’s Teacher Layoff Policies on Schools, Students and Communities in Three Large School Districts. Its recommendations include:

  • repealing the  state law requiring districts to use seniority as the primary criteria for layoffs (California is one of only a dozen states that do);
  • protecting high-poverty schools from the disproportionate impact of layoffs and the churn caused by bumping rights; and
  • moving back the March 15 deadline for layoff notices to the summer, giving districts more time to make accurate layoff decisions while reducing excessive notifications.

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