A Los Angeles County Superior Court judge tentatively approved significant changes to the "last hired, first fired" rules that govern teacher layoffs to keep campuses with young staffs from bearing the brunt of budgetary cutbacks in the nation's second-largest school district.
The preliminary decision addresses a ground-breaking court challenge to layoffs that devastated the staffs of three middle schools during job cuts over the last few years in the Los Angeles Unified School District. The case was filed against the district by the American Civil Liberties Union and others, and alleged students were being deprived of their constitutional right to an equitable education.
The plaintiffs argued that the schools — and their students — suffered disproportionately because many of their teachers lacked seniority, a problem particularly acute in impoverished areas where turnover is high. One of the schools, John H. Liechty Middle School near downtown Los Angeles, lost more than half its staff to layoffs in the last two academic years — even as test results suggested students had been making strong strides.
As The Times reported in a front-page story Sunday, some of the school's most promising teachers lost jobs, and many were replaced by more veteran teachers who were less effective at raising students' test scores in math and English.
"Students have a constitutional right to an adequate basic public education," Judge William F. Highberger wrote in a preliminary review released Tuesday night. "Teacher layoffs can interfere with the provision of constitutionally adequate basic public education."
In his written ruling and in a Wednesday court hearing, Highberger signaled assent to a proposed settlement, reached in October, that would spread layoffs more evenly across all district schools.
As it stands, the settlement would require layoffs to occur at about the same rate campus by campus across the school system. Less experienced teachers at some schools would thus be spared at the expense of more veteran colleagues elsewhere. And up to 45 schools could avoid layoffs completely if they demonstrate academic growth.
The judge indicated that he would consider going further than the settlement in linking job protections to performance. He suggested that state law might allow the district to lay off poorly performing teachers before resorting to seniority-based layoffs.
But that alternative would require reopening settlement negotiations, something that might be unwise, said Deputy Supt. John Deasy. The issue of teacher performance is being addressed separately in contract negotiations, he added.
"We have a historic settlement on behalf of students and teachers and the tentative ruling is the right thing for students," Deasy said.
The teachers union, United Teachers Los Angeles, had decried the layoffs but opposed the settlement. It has put forward other approaches for protecting such schools, including developing rules and incentives that would bring effective, experienced teachers to the campuses.
Highberger acknowledged union concerns about the potential for layoff procedures "prone to cronyism, favoritism and the other ills." He also noted that seniority protections are enshrined in state law and L.A. Unified's collective bargaining agreement. But he nonetheless found the settlement's approach legally reasonable, pending new arguments and further review. He also disregarded the union's assertion that it had been unfairly excluded from crucial negotiations.
"The other parties proceeded to negotiate without UTLA's presence, and UTLA now asserts that such negotiating sessions are evidence of inappropriate collusion," Highberger wrote. "The court is not presently persuaded at this time on this record that collusion has been shown."
Highberger has scheduled additional hearings for next week and January.
The judge urged all parties, including the union, to reach agreement, or at least conclude their legal wrangling quickly. With education budgets still strained, more layoffs loom and an improved system needs to be in place, he said.
The lawsuit was filed against L.A. Unified on behalf of students at Liechty, Edwin Markham south of downtown and Samuel Gompers middle schools, also south of downtown, by the ACLU, Public Counsel Law Center and Morrison Foerster. UTLA was added to the litigation later as an essential party.