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.

This entry was posted in Teacher Development, Tenure on by .

About 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.

14 thoughts on “Layoffs by seniority contested

  1. Gary Page

    Honoring seniority is not the root cause of the plight facing the disadvantaged and underperforming schools. The two primary causes are 1) local housing policy; and 2) failure of local school boards to manage staff by ensuring a balance of experienced staff at each school site, resulting in 3) an unfair allocation of staff resources.

    If a child happens to be born to parents of low income, that child will likely live in a home where the parents can afford the rent or price of the home. When a community builds gated communities and  communities that lack housing that is affordable to all members of society, it becomes a community that is segregated from lower income people… this is not by chance or accident but by design. These new communities often have new schools, which serve only people that live in the new communities. That income level of parents is related to school performance is settled fact.

    School boards negotiate labor agreements, but do not negotiate agreements that allow for school administrators to “manage” staff resources by having authority to decide where a teacher will be assigned… again favoring those teachers with seniority. There would be less impact on the disadvantaged school with inexperienced staff at times of layoff if the school boards required a “balance” of senority at each school. School staff at each school site could include very experienced teachers, some experienced teachers and some beginning teachers.   

    School districts typically “allocate” a number of teachers to a school site based on the number of students, but allocation does not factor teacher salary. So a school with 30 experienced teachers at top salary is considered equal to 30 inexperienced teachers at beginning salary. “Each school got 30 teachers.”  However, because the preferred high-performing schools attract experienced teachers these schools have much higher staff expenditures per teacher than the disadvantaged schools.

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  2. Frances O'Neill Zimmerman

    Another reminder that public education — a foundation stone of our democracy — is a mess, largely because of competing political interests that have nothing to do with educating children.  Authority for making decisions has been shredded among elected school boards, appointed superintendents, administrators’ and teachers’ unions. Legislators (in the thrall of special interest campaign contributions) set the ed rules that become laws that are enforced by the courts.  And let’s not forget business’ constant push for more school privatization at public expense.
    Today detailed academic standards and mind-numbing standardized tests have taken the place of laissez-faire summers-off unaccountability, but there is still no societal call to spend on an uncompromisingly excellent public education for the children we have in our schools now.
    It is ridiculous to staff schools based on seniority, as if that were the sole gauge of true teacher quality or ability to work on a team. It is ridiculous to pay teachers poorly because that draws weak teacher-candidates and fosters a lesser image of the profession.  It is ridiculous for teacher-training to be as low-level and undemanding as the C-Best bar. It is ridiculous for anyone other than a first-rank college graduate with a specified major to become certified to enter a classroom. It is ridiculous to have huge classes, especially when so many children have special needs, linguistic and physical, and when we have known for years that all children learn with personal attention from an attuned teacher.
    If we made education a true priority —  as opposed to our expensive foreign wars or even fighting over scraps, which is the present politics of education — we would have fully-employed teachers and well-prepared students graduating from our schools.

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  3. Sue Moore

    Thank you Frances, as always you say it best.
    I wish there were some way that parents across the country could be mobilized to effect change in K-12 education, and understand as you do, how we cannot allow the existing charade to be played out any longer. Again, my husband and I were the only parents at our small school district’s board meeting on Thursday. We watched money flexed to the General Fund away from desperately needed new text books in math, and heard how Summer School would not happen again. When there was a problem with basketball the parents were there … but academics … the arts! I’d welcome ideas.

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  4. navigio

    Sue, this is such a hard problem. It is often hard enough to get parents to contribute at school, let alone to attend district board meetings. What I have found is that when people understand more about the nuances of school finance and administration that they tend to become more curious and are more likely to watch board meetings (for those that are broadcast) or even show up in person. But the truth is, the vast majority of parents know virtually next to nothing about education. And those that want to contribute will naturally start with their own school site first. Only then might they venture to the district office.. on a weeknight.. away from the family…
    If you are in a small community, you may have a patch page. This may be a good resource to start posting coverage of some of the issues that are addressed (or created) at board meetings. The advantage of something like that is people may go there for more general information as well, so the set of eyes you might reach should be broader than simply posting on the district website or some kind of education-specific site. Local papers may also cover these items, but I’ve found them to be more sporadic and less reliable as a source.
    Also, dont forget, there are likely as many (or more) people who are intimidated by the process as there are who are not interested. Most people do care, you just need to find the context in which that happens for each of them..  :-)

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  5. Sue Moore

    Hi Navigio:
    Thank you! I recently met informally with some parents, and they basically felt intimidated and confused by the system, and also perturbed by answers from the administration that they had received to very well thought through questions. (Parents were usually correct, and had clearly done their research!) I have learned that in a very small community where some teachers once attended the same school at which they now teach, there is a defensiveness and loyalty that is both laudable and obstructive. As a single district charter, with no local oversight, it is especially difficult for parents to feel as though there is anywhere to turn. I find it deeply ironic that having left SDUSD with its increasingly lockstep system, and decimation of the once protected School Site Governance Team system, that I am in a small charter school where the only input for parents as the school entirely restructures its 6-8 program, is to ask questions at a board meeting! Parents do contribute, massively; that’s the only reason we have any music, a little art and some drama and limited Spanish this year, as well as some field trips. I am learning that many parents in my area feel that they are asked to support the schools financially, and by grading papers, volunteering in the classroom , etc., but they are not wanted when important decisions are made. Sadly, a confirmation of one aspect of my doctoral research! The education community here is quite closed, with a majority of people having gained certification at the same place, and with administrators in the same loop. There has been nothing new coming in for a while, and few educators have taught elsewhere, or committed to related field and or/ in-field doctoral and post-doctoral research and practice.
    Honestly, I am trying very hard, using all of my expertise, contacts and resources, but in a small community it is a tough call because there is a rosy glow that must not be dimmed, and my kids are there every day! There are so many positive aspects to the school that the changes would not alter the character of it, in fact, changes would simply bring it into line with the SBE approved charter, and the re-introduction of committees would re-align us with the charter community, but the cuts are now a good excuse to avoid movement. I’ll re-think, and explore a patch page. If this small system is so impenetrable to a majority of the parents, I understand even more why they don’t even pay attention to rulings about seniority! We need an “Idiot’s Guide” to California’s Education System!” – because it is just too complex.

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  6. navigio

    Sue, Right on on the idiot’s guide.. I’m hoping to be just the idiot to write such a thing..   ;-)
    But seriously, idiot’s guides need to exist exactly because the topics are complex and anything that complex takes work and time to understand. One thing I have also done is turned on a few parents at our school to this blog. I think it is helpful to have the issues be presented on an ongoing basis.
    Regarding defensiveness and loyalty, I expect this is not uncommon. While I admit it can be extremely frustrating, I think there are also reasons that kind of reaction from ‘insiders’ might exist. Just as it takes time and effort on a parent’s part, it takes time and effort (and money) on an administrator’s part to engage parents. Often, a parent will become loud and engaged when there is a specific issue that impacts them directly. They will indicate a desire to be involved and then when its time to do the work, they will silently bow out (not to disrespect those parents who do stay involved, and put a lot of time into the process.. because there are many who do). I seem to see this being kind of an ebb and flow. There seems to be a critical mass of community involvement that will cause districts to make their own effort, but below which, they will be dismissive. And IMHO, understandably so (to some extent).
    There are also the myriad other barriers: administrators who might feel they were hired to do a job so let them do it; parents who dont feel comfortable with english; parents whose transportation or time options are limited, lack of resources to properly expose/explain issues and context, etc, etc.

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  7. el

    There are many barriers to participation in school governance that are invisible to a school. For example, just dumb things like an announcement that a meeting will be in a particular room. Does it come with a map? No. Who wants to wander around in the dark at a lonely school feeling like an idiot? No one.
    I think it really helps to have a “regular” specifically invite and bring new people along, rather than expect them to come on their own.
    Sue: have you considered using your county office of education as a resource? Or is it more of the same?

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  8. el

    navigio, Kathy, John, I think one way to convey some of the weird bits of education governance is to explain the circumstances that created each little bit. (Well, not EACH little bit; that would take forever! But a few sample little bits.)
    For example, this is a series that I’ve found really interesting, called “How Regulation Came to Be.” The link below goes to a story about the Great Molasses Flood of Boston (which killed 21 people, injured scores more, and created tremendous property damage), and how that led to rules that tanks be engineered and inspected:
    The problem, of course, gets to be when each patch on the law makes an end product that’s hard to follow and unsustainable, especially those that were carefully engineered to handle one special case without much regard for the system as a whole.

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  9. Sue Moore

    I am looking forward to the guide – I need it for sure, and I am reasonably knowledgeable!
    I will think through all suggestions and get some interest going. My husband has just encouraged the school to make some valuable communications changes that have made an immediate difference. (He analyzed the web-site and itemized some simple things that would help.) I am so stymied by the distance of the SBE oversight – or little of it.
    I will also send out the link to this site to more parents. Should have done that already!

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