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UTLA may sue to block layoff change

Left out of talks, teachers threaten to challenge a settlement deal ending 'last hired, first fired' policy in L.A. Unified.

October 07, 2010|By Howard Blume and Jason Song, Los Angeles Times

Local teachers union leaders angrily denounced on Wednesday an agreement that would result in sweeping changes to teacher seniority protections in the nation's second-largest school system. They said the pact was reached without their participation and they are weighing court action to block the new policies from taking effect.


FOR THE RECORD:
Teacher seniority and layoffs: The headline on an article in the Oct. 7 Section A about an agreement that could result in sweeping changes to teacher seniority protections in the Los Angeles Unified School District erred in stating that the teachers union may sue to block the proposed policies from taking effect. As the article noted, United Teachers Los Angeles is weighing court action to block such changes, but the union says it may pursue legal remedies other than a lawsuit. —

The union response comes one day after the announcement of a tentative settlement reached between the Los Angeles Board of Education and lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union and other firms. They had sued the district over layoff procedures that effectively decimated the staffs of three schools serving low-income minority students. The union was a defendant in the lawsuit, but was not involved in the negotiations that led to Tuesday's resolution.

Under the tentative settlement, no school would suffer disproportionate layoffs when budget cuts force staff reductions. The intent is to protect schools that rely heavily on less-experienced teachers from the massive employee turnover that has sometimes resulted from a strict "last hired, first fired" seniority system. Instead, the impact would be spread campus by campus with the exception of a group of up to 45 schools. Some schools, probably in more prosperous areas, would be harder hit by layoffs. And some experienced teachers could lose their job protections.

The union's lack of participation, whether voluntary or not, was widely viewed as unusual. United Teachers Los Angeles is the biggest teachers union in the state and has long been an influential voice in local and state education policy and politics.

"The policy is disturbing and it's disturbing because we weren't involved in the process," said union President A.J. Duffy. "We should have been consulted and we weren't. There is a growing pattern within the district and the board majority to leave teachers out of the discussion and the debate."

Lawyers representing students in the original litigation contested Duffy's claim of exclusion.

"The union voluntarily absented itself from the negotiations," said Mark Rosenbaum, chief counsel of the ACLU of Southern California. "We called the union multiple times and encouraged them to participate. If they weren't in the room it's because they walked out and refused to come back in."

Duffy said the new policy could result in unintended consequences, such as encouraging the staffing of schools with a disproportionate number of young, inexperienced teachers. Those instructors depart the profession in higher numbers, he said, creating a different form of instability. The most effective schools, he said, have a balance of young and veteran teachers.

He said the union is reviewing the settlement and would be "obligated to challenge … if it doesn't serve the best interests of students." Layoffs through a process other than traditional seniority have faced legal challenges elsewhere.

Officials with the Los Angeles Unified School District talked of looking forward to working with the unions. But board member Yolie Flores, for one, said the plan itself would move forward regardless of union involvement.

"We will give the union the opportunity to negotiate, but if they're not willing to, we will be moving full speed ahead," Flores said.

The union's lack of participation is a sign of the weakening of educational unions, experts said, especially since seniority has been fiercely guarded by labor groups.

"It's another step in the gradual erosion in the influence of the union," said Dominic Brewer, an education professor at USC. "I wouldn't underestimate them … but people are more willing to question whether the positions of the unions are in the best interests of kids."

The changes resulted from negotiations to settle a lawsuit that initially concerned the impact of layoffs at three middle schools — Samuel Gompers, Edwin Markham and John H. Liechty.

Gompers and Markham are overseen by a nonprofit under the control of L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. His education team recruited lawyers to pursue the litigation in hopes of forestalling massive teacher turnover at their schools.

The lawsuit was eventually widened to include Liechty, the school hardest-hit by the 2009 layoffs.

In May, an L.A. County Superior Court judge issued an injunction barring further layoffs at those schools.

School board member Steve Zimmer said the labor conflict should not be overplayed.

"The real story here is a willingness to consider a redistribution of public educational pain," Zimmer said, referring to the next time the school system is forced to lay off teachers. That time could be next year, with the school system facing further deficits due to declining enrollment and funding.

howard.blume@latimes.com

jason.song@latimes.com

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