Hartford asks state to modify seniority guarantees in teachers’ contract

As angry teachers protested, the Hartford Board of Education voted Tuesday to ask the State Board of Education to change a contractual guarantee of seniority job rights, a provision that officials say disrupts the teaching staffs of the district’s many specialized magnet schools.

“It is a necessary step in order for high-performing schools to survive the next several years in this terrible economy,” said Superintendent of Schools Steven Adamowski. After laying off 240 employees last year, the school district projects another 180 layoffs this year.

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If the state board agrees to the city’s request, it would be the first time the state has used its authority to alter a union contract under a state law associated with the federal No Child Left Behind Act. The law gives the State Department of Education the authority to intervene in low-achieving schools.

Under the rules Hartford wants to change, the least experienced teachers are the first to be laid off and can be replaced by more experienced teachers from any school in the district, resulting in a shuffling of teachers among different schools. Officials contend that policy undermines stability at magnet schools, where special themes such as science, the arts or the Montessori method require teachers to have special qualifications or training.

The school district is asking the state to limit the seniority provision to individual schools, helping those schools to avoid major disruptions or having to take in teachers who are less qualified, according to Adamowski.

The district-wide seniority provision “is a product of the old industrial model where all schools are the same, and teachers were interchangeable,” Adamowski said.

In Rhode Island last year, state officials overrode a seniority provision in Providence teachers’ contracts, ordering city schools to base teaching assignments on student needs, not seniority. The Providence Teachers Union challenged the move in court, and the case is now before a federal mediator.

The Hartford union could follow a similar path. “We’re talking to our lawyers,” Hartford Federation of Teachers President Andrea Johnson said moments after Tuesday’s vote.

Adamowski said the effort to change Hartford’s seniority rules is designed to save a system that gives families the choice of many specialty schools. “There is no union animus or anti-union sentiment implied in any of this,” he said.

The move, however, angered union officials, who have long had a hostile relationship with Adamowski.

“It’s an anti-union, union-busting tactic,” said Johnson. “It’s outrageous. This guy doesn’t quit.”

At a hearing before the school board considered the move Tuesday, teachers and parents jammed a meeting room, and spectators shouted their approval or disapproval as speakers offered sharply different views about the proposal.

Several parents expressed support for the move. “We think it makes sense to not have to retrain teachers,” said Milly Arciniegas, president of the Hartford Parent Organization Council.

Most teachers, however, opposed any attempt to change seniority rules. “It would cripple the district’s ability to retain the most experienced teachers and weaken the ability of young teachers like myself to learn from those with the most experience and knowledge,” said Joshua Blanchfield, a social studies teacher at Hartford Public High School in his second year of teaching.

Adamowski  and the teachers’ union have clashed in the past, most recently in a dispute over a longstanding arrangement under which the district pays a portion of the salaries of union officers while they are on leave from their teaching duties for union business.

The district stopped the paying the salaries last fall over what it said were unresolved tax issues but resumed the payments recently following an out-of-court settlement of the dispute.

The union-management relationship in Hartford was characterized as broken by Sharon Palmer, president of AFT-Connecticut, a statewide teachers’ union. “Poisonous,” she said. “There’s absolutely no trust on either side.”

The seniority layoff provision is a bedrock principle of the union contract and goes back decades, Johnson said.

Nevertheless, some principals said that district-wide seniority rights threaten their schools.

“We want to get access to the teachers we feel work best for us,” said Stephen Perry, principal of Capital Preparatory Magnet School. “We face a situation where the very people who started this school find their jobs in peril” under the current system, he said.

At the Breakthrough Magnet School, Principal Norma Neumann-Johnson also said she supports the effort to limit seniority rights to individual schools. “To have someone go through training here and then be bumped out of a job . . . is terrible.”

“I just think we’ve got to be guided by what’s in the best interest of students. We cannot continue to be labor-bound when we’re trying to close the achievement gap.”