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Settlement limits L.A. teachers' seniority protection

Court agreement would cap the number of seniority-based layoffs at most L.A. Unified schools, meaning some teachers with fewer years of service could keep their jobs while some with more experience lose theirs.

October 06, 2010|By Jason Song, Howard Blume and Jason Felch, Los Angeles Times

The Los Angeles Board of Education approved Tuesday what would be a landmark court settlement that radically limits the traditional practice of laying off teachers strictly on the basis of seniority. The agreement would cap the number of those dismissals at virtually all schools in the nation's second-largest district.

The pact, approved unanimously after a two-hour closed session, also would spare up to 45 struggling schools from layoffs. Many of those schools have disruptive turnover rates among teachers.

The proposed settlement requires approval by a judge. It comes in response to a lawsuit filed in February by several legal groups, including the ACLU, which accused the state and Los Angeles Unified School District of denying students equal access to a public education.

It lays out one of the most sweeping reforms to teacher layoffs in the nation's school districts, which generally follow a "last hired, first fired" approach.

The teachers union, which has long held seniority as a cherished protection, said it was unaware of the decision and had no comment Tuesday afternoon.

"This is a shifting of the tectonic plates," said David Gregory, a professor of labor law at St. John's College in New York City. "If this were to move forward, every major district in the country is going to look to this as the model…. It would be the most innovative system in the country — if it comes to pass."

Although the proposed settlement only applies to L.A. schools, the ramifications could be national, said Stanford University education law professor William Koski. In essence, the case establishes that having quality teachers in high poverty schools could be considered a constitutional right in California.

"That's a pretty big deal," he said. "We've established the fact that you can't do harm to poor kids."

The agreement does not scrap seniority as a factor in layoffs. Rather, layoffs based on seniority would be distributed evenly among district schools. No school would lose a disproportionate number of instructors.

This marks a significant change because inexperienced teachers tend to be clustered in schools in low-income neighborhoods, putting those campuses at a disadvantage during every budget crisis.

Like virtually every other district in the state, L.A. Unified does not consider job performance in layoff decisions.

Under the plan, teachers with fewer than two years' experience would still be vulnerable. On the other hand, veteran teachers at some campuses could be laid off even as younger teachers at other schools are spared.

"It's not the perfect settlement, but for me it begins to address one of the biggest structural problems we have in public education — this issue about seniority," said board member Yolie Flores.

The district gave pink slips to 3,100 teachers last spring, but the vast majority were rehired. With the economy still lagging, future layoffs iare possible.

The lawsuit alleged that the district had dismissed up to two-thirds of the teachers at three of the city's worst-performing middle schools: Samuel Gompers, Edwin Markham and John H. Liechty.

Although many of the roughly 130 teachers were later rehired, their dismissals led to instability at the campuses, with many classes being taught by substitute teachers who weren't familiar with the material, the suit alleged.

A Los Angeles County Superior Court judge issued a preliminary injunction in May that barred the three campuses from laying off teachers this school year, but attorneys continued to negotiate with the school district.

Gompers and Markham are run by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's nonprofit Partnership for Los Angeles Schools. The group was not named in the original suit but would abide by the agreement, officials said.

At least some of the 45 or so campuses exempt from budget layoffs would be required to demonstrate academic achievement.

Even though the suit named the state as a plaintiff, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger spoke in support of the action when it was first filed. And L.A. Unified Supt. Ramon C. Cortines also said he was opposed to laying off teachers based solely on seniority.

"This is extraordinary, but it is not the full-fledged assault on seniority that some people want," said board member Steve Zimmer.

State Secretary of Education Bonnie Reiss said the state needs to go further, changing the law to allow merit-based decisions for all California schools.

"We're very pleased," Reiss said. "But ultimately, just to retain teachers at high poverty schools isn't enough."

Currently one exception to seniority-based layoffs allowed by law is when such firings would violate students' civil rights.

In Sacramento, two competing bills on seniority reform — one Republicans, one Democratic — were both killed this past session by opponents. The first, sponsored by Sen. Bob Huff (R-Diamond Bar), would have ended seniority altogether. A more limited bill sponsored by Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), sought to restrict layoffs at low-performing schools to the district average.

L.A. Unified lobbyists opposed the Steinberg legislation, but ironically their settlement Tuesday goes far beyond the reforms in that bill, senate staffers said.

jason.song@latimes.com

howard.blume@latimes.com

jason.felch@latimes.com

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