From Washington state to Arizona to Rhode Island, seniority-based cuts have turned some young teachers against their own unions and fueled efforts — mostly unsuccessful thus far — to revise seniority rules. In California, two bills failed this year in part because of opposition from the California Teachers Assn.
At L.A. Unified, outgoing Supt. Ramon C. Cortines said he believes it is time to consider other factors besides seniority during cutbacks, including performance measures such as attendance and parental feedback. He said he favors capping the number of layoffs at a single campus — an approach similar to that proposed in a pending legal settlement involving Liechty and other schools.
Liechty, he said, is among middle schools that suffered deeply because their principals either recruited a high number of the "best and brightest" young teachers or were unable to find veteran teachers willing to work there.
"It's not a fair situation for those schools, and they bore a very large burden," Cortines said.
Liechty opened in the fall of 2007, its elegant main building of glass and steel standing out in a dingy neighborhood of apartments and convenience stores.
For its 1,900 students, it filled a gap: Middle schoolers for years had been bused to schools in other communities.
District officials recruited Jeanette Stevens, an experienced middle school principal, to carry out their ambitious plans. The students, most of them Latino and many still learning English, would be assigned to smaller groups within the school. Rather than switch classrooms and teachers for every subject, students in sixth and seventh grades would stay in one classroom and be taught by just two instructors, offering consistency and stability many did not have in their turbulent lives outside of school.
"We were trying to reinvent education," said Board of Education President Monica Garcia. "We knew this community had bused out a generation of kids and had a 24% graduation rate."
Stevens found that many veteran teachers were not interested in the school's new approach. She filled more than half the openings with freshly minted teachers, many from UCLA and eager for the challenge.
Amanda Uy discovered that her eighth-grade math and science students were several years behind. "I asked them to raise their hands if they got an F in math last year," she recalled. "They all raised their hands."
But in the teachers' lounge, several instructors recalled, the chatter reflected a genuine optimism, a belief that all the students were capable of learning.
"It was a combination of true believers and veterans who knew the situation and wanted to make a difference," said Robert Barker, an experienced L.A. Unified teacher who volunteered to teach at Liechty.
Invigorated by their successful first year, teachers were partway into their second one when the budget crisis hit L.A. Unified. Pink slips went out across the the district, including 42 of the approximately 75 Liechty instructors, warning that they could be gone by summer.
Liechty teachers had been active union members, often attending protests at district headquarters. Now they wanted to know what their union would do to protect their jobs.
A quick letdown
When United Teachers Los Angeles President A.J. Duffy met with instructors in Liechty's library on a spring morning in 2009, their hopes for a reprieve were quickly dashed.
Saving your jobs would mean that more experienced teachers would lose theirs, Duffy said, according to interviews with several people at the meeting. Seniority is the only fair way to do it, he said, and any exception would be "an act of disloyalty."
Teacher after teacher stood up to protest. "There needs to be a different way of doing this," Mike Kwok, a teacher with more than 30 years in the district, recalled saying. Allowing the layoffs to proceed "would destroy not only these new teachers but also the community and the relationships they had built with the students."
As Stevens watched, a call came in on her school radio. The superintendent was waiting for her in the office.
"Please go tell your teachers that they will all have jobs here next year," Cortines said, according to Stevens. "I'll do everything in my power to protect them and this successful model of reform."
By the time Stevens got back to the library to deliver the message, Duffy was gone. Beaming, she shared Cortines' promise.
Many were skeptical. What could Cortines do to overrule state law, which, with few exceptions, required seniority to determine layoffs? Any solution would also require an exception to the union contract, and Duffy clearly wasn't willing to play ball.
Cortines did not dispute this account. Duffy said he went to the school knowing that teachers would "beat me up" and didn't recall saying anything about disloyalty.