Seniority-based layoffs at Seattle Schools may be crumbling

The School District is dodging the issue, while the unions are digging in. What's changing is pressure from parents and signs of impatience from the Legislature
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Olga Addae, SEA president, at the rally

The School District is dodging the issue, while the unions are digging in. What's changing is pressure from parents and signs of impatience from the Legislature

According to district management, times are so tough in Seattle Public Schools ($34 million budget shortfall) that 165 teachers have to be laid off. And according to the union contract between SPS and Seattle Education Association, which is currently up for re-negotiation, layoffs must be by seniority and seniority alone. 'ꀜThe performance ratings (evaluation) of employees shall not be a factor in determining the order of layoff,'ꀝ the agreement says.

Yet according to SEA, there shouldn'ꀙt be any layoffs since, they claim, SPS is flush with cash in its reserve accounts ($28 million) and federal stimulus money is laying about waiting to be picked up and spent. Finally, if layoffs are necessary, why can'ꀙt they come from management and those who don'ꀙt impact the classroom?

These and other themes permeated a June 3 rally at SPS headquarters sponsored by the SEA and attended by 250 people, most of them members of the teachers union or students. Parents weren'ꀙt prominent, and none were among the more than half-dozen speakers.

The rhetoric from speaker after speaker could have been lifted from a demonstration out of the 1960s — or the 1930s: militant trade unionism, the evils of capitalism and the profit incentive, and how the crowd must stand in solidarity with working-class teachers so poor they have to sleep on the floor. The obligatory Socialist Workers Party book table featured The Communist Manifesto, among other screeds.

The rally was old home week for familiar Seattle leftists such as El Centro de la Raza'ꀙs Robeto Maestas, who regaled the crowd with tales of decades-old takeovers of school buildings. In her remarks, SEA president Olga Addae accused SPS of being complicit in 'ꀜthe re-engineering of public education to fit the corporate model.'ꀝ About the only difference was the pre-rally rap music, which glorified bong hits.

The layoffs, which represent about 5 percent of the SPS certificated workforce, aren'ꀙt sitting well with anyone. SEA doesn'ꀙt see the need, while SPS laments the lack of state dollars that occasion them. Lost in the shuffle, however, are those for whom the whole public school system is supposed to be about: students and their families. What do they think?

According to Andrew Kwatinetz of the group Community and Parents for Public Schools, many parents are frustrated and impatient with both SPS and SEA. In a Seattle Times op-ed, he wrote: 'ꀜHiring and retaining teachers based on performance is the right thing to do for children and the right thing to do for teachers. The current superintendent and School Board did not negotiate the current contract, but they are negotiating the new one right now, behind closed doors.'ꀝ

Kwatinetz and CPPS are pressuring SPS to include in its collective bargaining proposals a change from the pure-seniority system to one that takes job performance into account. Their online petition to that effect now has over 1,000 signatories from all over Seattle (as evidenced by the Zip Codes), and that number is growing daily.

A proposal to change the strict seniority-based system has failed to materialize among those posted on the districts'ꀙ website. Commending SPS for its transparency in posting proposals, several of which deal with streamlining the teacher-evaluation process and performance-based teacher compensation, Kwatinetz told me that he is disappointed that the seniority issue isn'ꀙt being addressed.

He expressed support for teachers and distanced himself from any sense that either he or CPPS are anti-union. They are, he said, pro-kids, hoping that whatever comes out of current bargaining will err on the side of keeping the best teachers in the classroom rather than maintaining a system that errs on the side of protecting bad teachers from job loss.

CPPS has also demanded a seat at the collective bargaining table to act as a watchdog on behalf of parents since that may be the only way to hold both SPS and SEA accountable. At this point in the negotiations, said Kwatinetz, both sides are 'ꀜposturing and getting ready for a battle, not getting ready to work on behalf of kids.'ꀝ He isn'ꀙt optimistic that either side will welcome them to the table.

At the rally were several young women who attend Ballard High School, who all said they too want the seniority-based layoff system eliminated. Hali Willis, a 15-year-old freshman, said that layoffs should be based on 'ꀜanything other than what it is now — anything other than seniority.'ꀝ She added, 'ꀜThey'ꀙre not taking us and our education into account.'ꀝ Another student criticized the current system by saying it kept teachers who are 'ꀜworn out'ꀝ as opposed to those who are excited about teaching.

SEA members at the rally see it differently. John Dunn spent 45 years in a variety of SPS classrooms and is now retired but still teaching as a substitute. Dunn argued that seniority was the fairest way to determine who should be laid off. Claiming that it protected teachers from favoritism or cronyism, he blamed administrators for not doing their jobs when it came to weeding out incompetent teachers. While he expressed doubt that an objective, fair method of performance- and evaluation-based layoffs could occur, he at least expressed a skeptical willingness to entertain such a proposal.

Where is the school district in all this? In addition to not posting a proposal to modify the seniority system on its website, SPS officials so far refuse to say whether they will address the issue at all. Repeated requests to the Seattle School Board, SPS Superintendant Maria Goodloe-Johnson, and SPS Director of Labor Relations Ricardo Cruz to answer the question whether SPS will seek to replace the seniority-based layoff system with one that is performance- or merit-based were either ignored or drowned in a bureaucratic shower of lots of words saying nothing. No wonder parent groups like CPPS are frustrated. Their simple proposal can be answered either yes or no, but the public officials who can respond remain verbosely mute.

Given the angry tenor of the crowd at the SEA rally, one can readily speculate what the union'ꀙs response to changing the seniority system would be. (Repeated requests to SEA'ꀙs Addae to comment on this and other issues remain unanswered.) Comments from rank and file teachers, suggest that many of them regard the issue as a labor-relations hill upon which they'ꀙre prepared to die. In other words, it'ꀙs a strike issue.

Possibly the explosive issue will be removed from the control of SPS and SEA. Rep. Reuven Carlyle, D-36th District, thinks the current seniority-based system is untenable and must be changed. National trends point toward direct teacher accountability, and Carlyle contends that SPS must move toward a more outcome-oriented system. "Seniority is not the most sustainable model,'ꀝ the freshman legislator says.

Carlyle notes that other school districts have performance-based evaluation processes while Seattle remains extreme in its opposition. He says he'ꀙs not sympathetic to that Seattle stance, adding that neither are the parents in his legislative district, which is one of the most Democratic-leaning ones in Seattle. 'ꀜParents in my legislative district are unequivocal: seniority is not fair nor is it appropriate,'ꀝ he says.

Carlyle says it isn'ꀙt a matter of whether SPS and SEA will address the issue, but when. The issue must be on the bargaining table and the sooner the better, he says, and it's up to SPS to address it in a clever way or a clumsy way. The Washington Legislature is watching, he warns. And if the issue makes it to the bargaining table provoking a strike? 'ꀜI could sure see myself taking sides.'ꀝ

As for the parents' group CPPS, Kwatinetz expressed hope that the bargaining process would avert brinkmanship, but he made it clear that his group will continue the pressure in order to achieve necessary reform.

The ball, then, is in the School District's court. With it unlikely that SEA will hop on the performance-based bandwagon, it remains for the District to raise the issue and bargain it to a resolution. Right now, a growing sentiment among parents and others in the community is pushing for substantial reform of a system they regard as too rigid, not in the best interests of a quality education for children, and a throwback to industrial unionism. The SPS has historically ducked the issue, bowing to SEA threats and refusals to negotiate such changes. This time, the political dynamics seem different.


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