Layoffs by seniority contested

Administrative law judges have ruled that San Francisco Unified and Sacramento City Unified exceeded their authority to protect teachers at high priority, low-performing schools from districtwide layoffs this year.

Both districts have targeted extra resources for teacher training and strategies in hopes of stanching the turnover of teachers and reversing the dismal test scores at some of their most troubled schools. Both districts said they needed three years to build new models – “incubators of innovation,” as Sacramento City called them ­ – so that they could then pass on what works to other schools.

But state law permits few exceptions to layoffs based on seniority, and the administrative law judges ruled that San Francisco Unified had failed to make a persuasive case for bypassing seniority, and that Sacramento City had partially done so, for a majority of teachers ­and not for counselors at only five of seven schools that the district sought to protect.

The San Francisco Unified school board has decided not to contest Administrative Law Judge Melissa Crowell’s decision that the district erred in shielding from layoffs the staff at 14 “Superintendent’s Zone” schools it had targeted for reforms. As a result, dozens of less experienced teachers in the Zone schools will likely lose their jobs, potentially jeopardizing  progress in some of the schools, like George Washington Carver Elementary in the Bayview area of the city, where the San Francisco Chronicle reported Sunday that attendance and scores are up. “It’s hard not to be disappointed and devastated,”  Assistant Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero told the Chronicle. “No one has wanted to work (at those schools) for decades. … Now we’re going to pull the rug out from under them.”

Administrative law judges’ rulings in layoff disputes are advisory to school boards, and Sac City Unified’s board has decided to ignore elements of the latest ruling dealing with the district’s Priority Schools. After a contentious five-hour meeting on Friday, board members voted unanimously to exempt all of the staffs at all seven schools. The board’s resolution said that Administrative Law Judge Ann Elizabeth Sarli had made factual mistakes in deciding who qualified for layoff protections. Last year, a different administrative law judge ruled that the district could exempt staffs at most of the Priority Schools.

Superintendent Jonathan Raymond said that the board made the right call. The “transformative strategies” at the Priority Schools are making a difference, but the staffs “need time and space to stay together,” he said. (An article earlier this year by TOP-Ed colleague Kathy Baron on the success at Oak Ridge Elementary, a Priority School, can be found here.)

The Sacramento Teachers Association, which opposes bypassing seniority, is expected to decide this week whether to fight the issue in court. Update: In a statement released on Monday, the union condemned the board vote, noting, “The decision by the Superintendent to concentrate District funding and attention to seven designated priority schools has created a situation where precious resources, including staffing guarantees, are being funneled away from the many other high needs schools and kids throughout the District.  Especially during this time of unprecedented fiscal crisis, this policy decision must be critically analyzed both to its ethical basis and its compliance with state law, which is what the ALJ (administrative law judge) was duty-bound to consider.”

What state law permits

State law is emphatic that teacher layoffs should be by seniority. However, there are two exceptions, one narrow and one broad: The specific exception permits teachers with special training and experience to teach specific courses or courses of study when there are no senior teachers with the requisite training and experience. The other allows deviating from seniority in order in order to protect students’ fundamental constitutional right to equal educational opportunity.

Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge William Highberger cited the latter exception last year when he issued a landmark decision that permitted Los Angeles Unified to protect 45 of the district’s lowest-performing schools, which had experienced a chronically high turnover of teachers, from layoffs. Such a churn of staff had violated students’ rights and hindered the district’s efforts to turn the schools around, Highberger ruled.

LAUSD is about to enter the third year of shielding 45 schools, some of which have been replaced because they’ve shown improved scores and teacher stability. But Highberger’s decision has limited jurisdiction, and administrative law judges and other courts won’t have guidance on the equal protection issue until an appeals court rules on it, said Catherine Lhamon, an attorney with Public Counsel Law Center that brought the lawsuit on behalf of students in threeLAUSD schools with the highest turnover of teachers as a result of seniority-based layoffs.

San Francisco Unified didn’t cite the equal protection argument in making its case to Judge Crowell, even though the 14 Zone schools have been facing sanctions as low-performing schools for more than six years and are receiving multimillion-dollar, three-year federal School Improvement Grants that stress the need for a well-trained, stable school staff.

But Crowell ruled that the Zone schools don’t qualify as a course of study, in part because all San Francisco schools have the same core curriculums; the district failed to show that other schools in the district didn’t have the same level of teacher training as in Zone schools; and it didn’t establish that more veteran teachers couldn’t fill the jobs of teachers who’d otherwise be laid off.

Bypassing seniority isn’t allowed, Crowell wrote, “even if the district believes that skipping junior certificated employees is in the best interest of the district and of its students.”

Sac City did make the equal protection argument in arguments before Sarli, but she dismissed it. She said that many schools in the district are facing similar sanctions for low performance and also have high rates of poverty; they’d be disadvantaged by disproportionate layoffs if the Priority Schools were protected, she wrote.

The district argued that teachers and counselors in the Priority Schools have formed special bonds with the students and families; breaking those relationships would be detrimental to students. It also said that a stable teaching staff was important to assess the effectiveness of the new programs at Priority Schools. These intangibles and the ability to create what Raymond calls “a collective esprit de corps” may be why Priority Schools are showing positive results.

But these and other reasons aren’t grounds under state law to bypass seniority procedures, Sarli said. It all comes down to whether the teachers in Priority Schools received specialized training that teachers in other schools didn’t get. On this point, Sarli and the district partially disagreed. Sarli said that counselors, first-year teachers at Priority Schools and all staff at a first-year Priority School (Rosa Parks Middle School) and at Hiram Johnson High School didn’t receive enough specialized training to qualify for an exception. The district testified that they did. Sarli and the district agreed that the remaining teachers at five Priority Schools, all elementaries, were entitled to an exception.

I understand that at the hearing on Friday, parents and teachers at Priority Schools stressed how the restructured schools were having a huge impact on students’ lives. Teachers from non-Priority Schools stressed that they too are working hard, collaborating, getting extra training, to meet the needs of these same diverse children.

What’s clear is that whether at a Priority School or not, layoffs are destabilizing all schools and demoralizing teachers. Until they stop, some districts will turn to triage on behalf of the most besieged students.

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" (, 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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *