Hartford presses state for action on teacher seniority rule change

By limiting teacher seniority rights in Hartford, state education officials could bolster Connecticut’s chances of winning millions of dollars in federal school reform funds, according to Hartford’s superintendent of schools.

Steven J. Adamowski makes that argument in his latest effort to persuade the State Board of Education and Education Commissioner Mark McQuillan to issue an order overriding seniority provisions in the contracts of Hartford’s unionized teachers and administrators.

So far, the state has been reluctant to step into a dispute between the Hartford school system and its teachers over seniority — an issue that is flaring up from Rhode Island to California as financial strains force schools to confront the growing prospect of layoffs.

“We’ve been frustrated to some degree with the response of the commissioner and state board so far,” said Adamowski, who contends the “last-hired, first-fired” seniority provision threatens to derail school reform efforts by forcing the city to lay off some of its most qualified teachers.

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Teachers marched earlier this year to protest Hartford’s proposal to change seniority rules (Robert A. Frahm)

Last week, Adamowski handed the state board a memorandum saying that a state order modifying Hartford’s strict seniority policy not only would strengthen schools, it would “substantially improve Connecticut’s chances of receiving federal competitive grant funding.”

The memorandum, prepared by the law firm Shipman & Goodwin, cited comments from federal reviewers in the state’s unsuccessful initial application to win a grant under Race to the Top, the Obama administration’s $4.3 billion competition among the states to spur school reform. One reviewer, for example, said that despite the state’s authority to intervene in low-performing schools, “there is no mention of what they have done in this regard.”

Connecticut finished well out of the running in the first round of Race to the Top awards, but state officials are preparing a second application.

The memorandum cited examples from a handful of states that have restricted the use of seniority.

Arizona has passed legislation prohibiting the use of seniority in teacher layoffs. California is considering legislation allowing exceptions to the seniority rule, including the use of teacher evaluations as a factor in layoff decisions. Rhode Island has ordered that school need, not seniority, be the primary consideration in job reductions at low-performing schools.

After laying off 240 employees last year, school officials in Hartford project more than 90 layoffs this year, including about 50 teachers.

The Hartford Board of Education in March asked the state board to change a contractual guarantee of seniority job rights.

Under existing rules in Hartford, 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, technology or the arts require teachers to have special qualifications or training.

Many of those schools are part of a school reform program that officials say has begun to improve performance in one of the state’s most disadvantaged urban school systems.

Adamowski wants 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.

“This is, in our view, a very big civil rights issue of students having stability with qualified teachers,” he said.

The proposal to loosen seniority rules has drawn the support of some principals, parents and others, but “this has been a difficult and contentious issue,” Adamowski said.

Teachers have fought the proposed change.

They have accused Adamowski of union-busting, contending he wants to change seniority rules in order to get rid of the higher salaries of veteran teachers. “I believe his motivation is money,” said Andrea Johnson, president of the Hartford Federation of Teachers.

She scoffed at the suggestion that the seniority rules are harmful to the state’s Race to the Top application. “That’s outrageous,” she said. “No other district in the state of Connecticut has the kind of seniority he wants.”

The state so far has not agreed to the city’s request but has arranged to mediate discussions between the district and its unions. Had the state intervened, it would have been the first time it used its authority to take such an action 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.

If the district and unions cannot resolve the matter, the issue could be back before the State Board of Education at its next meeting on June 2.

Any order from the board could have significant consequences, including potential legal action against the state and long-term impact on union-management bargaining issues, the education department’s legal director, Daniel Murphy, told the state board.

In a memo to the board last week, Murphy also cautioned that a board order could erode the support of teacher unions for the Race to the Top application. Union support, he said, “is critical to the potential success of the State’s application.”