As teacher layoffs go out, seniority will remain primary factor for most districts

Faced with a multimillion-dollar budget deficit, Bristol Superintendent Philip Streifer may be forced to lay off some of his teachers. He’s glad the education reform proposals moving forward at the state Capitol won’t change the way he will determine who will go: The last teacher hired will be the first one fired.


Bristol Superintendent Philip Streifer: ‘I have to look these teachers in the eye and say this decision was made in a fair way. This is the only way.’

“I have to look these teachers in the eye and say this decision was made in a fair way. This is the only way to do that,” said the superintendent of an urban district that employs more than 500 teachers.

An analysis of the state’s 161 teaching contracts by the Connecticut Education Association shows that two of every three school districts have to make layoff decisions using seniority as the lone or primary factor. Because of the large numbers involved, reformers and others were stunned that Gov. Dannel P. Malloy‘s sweeping plans for reforming education didn’t touch this issue.

Seniority-based layoffs has taken center stage at the state Capitol for several years, a top priority of ConnCAN, a New Haven-based education reform group, and a frequent subject of newspaper editorials, many of which have urged such a change.

Despite these calls for change — and the fact that 1,500 teacher layoff notices are expected to go out starting April 1 — Malloy resisted the urge to take on this issue. However, he has said on several occasions that this last in, first out approach is something that must change.

“A teacher who has not taught math for 10 years and has taught English should not have the ability to bounce the best math teacher in the school,” he said last week. But he added, “It’s not something we took on. We didn’t take everything on.”

While Malloy chooses his battles — with an ultimate goal of turning around the 30 lowest-performing districts — the leader of the group representing most of these worst-off districts agrees with Malloy’s decision to defer this debate.

“When I sit down with my urban superintendents and talk at length about what our top priorities are, this hasn’t even come up,” said Streifer, who is also the leader of the Connecticut Association of Urban Superintendents. “If you want to fix urban education, that is not how you do it. It’s not the panacea some claim.”

Others disagree.

“There has to be a sense of urgency for this. We are way overdue,” said Steve Tracy, the superintendent of Derby, a small school district west of New Haven. Last year, Tracy joined ConnCAN at the state Capitol at a news conference that called on legislators to do away with seniority-based layoffs.

Is this really a problem?

Over the past two years, school districts have reduced the number of teachers (excluding special education) they employ by 1,250, a 3 percent overall drop. This figure includes retirements and other incentives to leave the profession. Overall enrollment declined 1 percent.

Much of this reduction is the result of budget shortfalls, said Joe Cirasuolo, head of the state’s superintendents’ association.

“Next year we are expecting far more layoffs,” he said. He said he was surprised and disappointed that a proposal requiring an end to seniority-based layoffs was not included in Malloy’s proposals. “I know there are some districts that would really appreciate such a change.”

The state Department of Education reports that 521 teachers have been involuntarily laid off during the past three years. A spokesman said that the department had no information on how many of these were let go only because they were the last one in their district hired.

Mary Loftus Levine, the leader of the state’s largest teachers union, said seniority-based layoffs is “a non-issue.”

“Not one of my [union] representatives has reported that a district is asking for this at the bargaining table,” she said Monday. “We have so many other things we need to talk about besides this.”

What’s the alternative?

The reason given by legislators for years on why they aren’t ready to eliminate seniority-based layoffs has been because there is no other fair way to decide who goes.

So when a pivotal agreement was made on how to evaluate and grade teachers, Tracy and ConnCAN officials had hoped that these teacher grades would outlaw seniority-based layoff decisions.

“The case for keeping seniority is weaker now this year than it ever was before,” Tracy said. “It would seem logical to me that teacher evaluations should play a role when making layoff decisions.”

But such a plan was never brought before the legislature’s Education Committee. The conversation quickly shifted to why the state should wait before tying such high-stakes to untested teacher evaluations. The agreed upon framework for teacher evaluations will have student performance and testing count for half of a teacher’s grade. The remainder will be linked to teacher and principal observations and parent and peer surveys. The final details and implementation still need to be finalized.

“We don’t have the science down to determine which teacher is better than whom. I sit here very practically when I say it would be very messy and don’t believe it would hold up in court,” said Streifer, who may have to lay off up to a dozen teachers next year.

States around the country are wrestling with how to fix the inherent problems that arose with the implementation of new evaluation systems. The National Council on Teacher Quality reports that just four states — Colorado, Florida, Indiana and Michigan — have done away with seniority-based layoffs, now using performance as the first criterion.