Judge resolves L.A. layoff suit

Three days of hearings this week didn’t change his mind. A Los Angeles County Superior Court judge on Friday approved a landmark settlement that will shield 45 low-performing and new schools in Los Angeles Unified from seniority-based teacher layoffs that would have disproportionately harmed the schools’ disadvantaged children.

The 45 schools include the three low-income, low-achieving middle schools that were named in the lawsuit brought last year by the Los Angeles office of the American Civil Liberties Union and the public interest law firm Public Counsel Law Center of Los Angeles. All will be exempt from the next round of layoffs in which more than 4,000 of 29,000 district teachers could lose their jobs. Layoffs in the remaining 750 schools will be based on seniority but will be spread evenly. As a result, experienced teachers could be laid off in some schools.

Last May, Judge William Highberger issued a preliminary ruling that a school district can override seniority-based layoffs for teachers when they intrude on children’s fundamental right to equal educational opportunity. That happened in the three middle schools named in the suit, where, in a regular churn of new teachers, more than half of the staff were laid off, creating turmoil and leaving them with permanent substitutes.

After Highberger’s ruling, plaintiffs’ lawyers worked out a settlement with district administrators and the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, whose city-affiliated schools in the district were affected as well. But United Teachers Los Angeles, which claimed it has been left out of negotiations, objected, and Highberger agreed to hold hearings this week.  The Los Angeles Times reported Friday that the union will likely appeal the deal that Highberger approved.

Under the three-year settlement, the court will monitor the case annually. The district will create incentives to retain teachers and administrators in the targeted schools. The district will have some latitude to choose the 20 new schools. The 25 low-performing schools will be chosen from among those with high teacher turnover rates that have shown some academic progress.

The settlement won’t set a precedent for other districts.  A bill sponsored by the Senate President pro Tem that would have required layoffs in the lowest-performing schools to be proportionally no greater than the district average died last year amid opposition from the California Teachers Assn. It’s too late for possible legislation this year to take effect before March 15, when districts are required to give notice to teachers potentially affected by a reduction in force.

With Los Angeles Unified facing a possible $400 million deficit, this year’s could be the largest layoff yet. In her testimony this week, the plaintiffs’ chief expert witness, City University of New York psychology professor Michelle Fine, characterized the lawsuit as “a very sad case about distributing pain.”

“A hurricane is about to hit LAUSD,” she said, “… so what this settlement does is simply provide a kind of little umbrella over a set of very fragile schools.”

Also expressing sorrow that many teachers are likely to lose their jobs, Catherine Lhamon, lead attorney in the case for the Public Counsel Law Center, said that Highberger “today lifted the burden of the financial crisis facing the district from the backpacks of the children least able to shoulder that burden.”

Author: John Fensterwald - Educated Guess

John Fensterwald, a journalist at the Silicon Valley Education Foundation, edits and co-writes "Thoughts on Public Education in California" (www.TOPed.org), one of the leading sources of California education policy reporting and opinion, which he founded in 2009. For 11 years before that, John wrote editorials for the Mercury News in San Jose, with a focus on education. He worked as a reporter, news editor and opinion editor for three newspapers in New Hampshire for two decades before receiving a Knight Fellowship at Stanford University in 1997 and heading West shortly thereafter. His wife is an elementary school teacher and his daughter attends the University California at Davis.

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