State panel rejects Hartford’s attempt to skirt teacher seniority

Days after Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said he wants to provide school districts with the opportunity to retain new and talented teachers over more senior staff, an arbitration panel rejected Hartford Public School officials request to do just that.

Hartford Public Schools, like many districts across the state, is facing potential layoffs under a deepening budget crisis, but the district will not be allowed to loosen seniority rules in laying off teachers, a state arbitration panel has decided.

The panel’s ruling touches on an issue that is part of a volatile debate over school quality across the nation.

In Connecticut, schools have shed 2,700 teaching positions in the last two years, said Joe Cirasuolo, head of the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents. Most of those who lost their jobs were teachers who had worked in the system the shortest amount of time, he said.

Malloy raised the issue in his budget address last week, proposing a reform of teacher tenure rules “to give local school districts the flexibility they need to retain new, talented teachers.”

However, Malloy’s proposal will not come in time to affect potential layoffs this year. A spokeswoman for Malloy said Tuesday the governor is not proposing an immediate change in the law but rather hopes his comments launch the conversation.

“The Governor has a very large, visible role in the dialogue of our state and he plans to use that role to get people to the table to talk about ways to close [the] achievement gap. One of the things to discuss is tenure,” said Colleen Flanagan. “Gov. Malloy believes in the concept of tenure but in tough economic times, he believes schools should have the ability to retain new, talented teachers who otherwise might lose their job.”

Cirasuolo said he welcomes the governors’ comment but is disappointed to hear it will not be coupled with a legislative proposal to change the law.

“It’s not enough for him to just appeal to their altruism. We need legislative action to release us from the current reality,” he said.

“Something has to change,” he said, warning that districts will begin making their layoff decisions in April, so that a change of heart by the teachers’ unions, or a law requiring it, needs to take place soon.

In Hartford, which has laid off 350 employees in the last two years, school officials contended that strict system-wide seniority provisions inhibit the district’s ability to staff specialized schools that are at the heart of the city’s school reform efforts. However, a State Department of Education arbitration panel rejected that argument.

Under existing seniority rules, 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. School officials, including Superintendent Steven Adamowski, 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 has been credited with improving performance across the district.

The district had proposed a system that would allow a principal to override system-wide seniority rules by rejecting prospective transfers from other schools if the principal decided the candidates were not a good fit.

However, the arbitrators ruled in favor of the teachers’ union, saying the district’s proposal “is overly broad and may be inconsistently applied across the district in such a manner as to deprive teachers of their right to a vacant position or a position held by an untenured teacher without due process.”

Allowing school principals to make decisions on which teachers will be hired does not comply with state law granting that authority only to school boards, the panel said.

“Obviously we’re thrilled,” said Andrea Johnson, president of the Hartford Federation of Teachers. “Seniority within the district is a very good thing and has worked very well.”

Johnson disputed the district’s argument that the specialty schools required an unusual level of training. “You still have to teach history…no matter what kind of school you’re in,” she said. “They’d like the public to believe somehow you have to have very specialized training. It doesn’t mean you as a teacher, especially an experienced teacher, can’t go in and learn that process.”

The three-member panel’s ruling was a split decision, with panelist John M. Romanow dissenting. The last-hired, first-fired approach fails to take into account teacher quality and “will result in many teachers being forced into position that are not suitable for them,” Romanow wrote.

The result, he said, “will do irreparable harm to the school system and clearly make it less likely that the Hartford Board of Education will be able to continue to make great strides in closing the achievement gap.”

The district last year had sought to change seniority rules by asking the State Board of Education to override the provisions in the teachers’ union contract, but the board took no action.

After losing the arbitration ruling, Hartford officials said they will ask the State Board again to rule on the matter.

“A portfolio district such as ours, with a wide variety of schools that require specialized training, cannot function properly under a one-size-fits-all, quality-blind approach to seniority,” the district said in a prepared statement.

Connecticut one of many states debating seniority-based layoffs and tenure, says Kathy Christie, the chief of staff for the Education Commission of the States.

“The conversation is changing all over the country on whether to look at the quality of the teacher versus the amount of time spent in the classroom. That push lately has been much stronger to go back and revise those laws,” she said.

The reaction is different state-by-state. In Oregon, voters rejected in 2008 an initiative that would allow districts to “retain teachers who are most qualified” regardless of their seniority.  In Arizona, the governor signed in 2009 a law that forbids districts from adopting policies that provide employment retention priority for teachers based on tenure or seniority. In California, lawmakers are also considering a proposal to overhaul these laws.