The State Board of Education backed away Wednesday from a volatile dispute over seniority for Hartford schoolteachers facing potential layoffs.

The board decided not to step into the dispute, urging the Hartford Board of Education and the district’s teachers’ union to attempt to resolve the issue themselves.

The Hartford school board last month asked 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.

After laying off 240 employees last year, the school district projects as many as another 160 layoffs this year, including about 80 teachers.

The state board was reluctant to override the existing contract, an action that some board members feared would have led to a lawsuit. Instead, the board adopted a resolution that “strongly requests and encourages” Hartford school officials to enter discussions about the seniority issue.

Had the state board agreed to the city’s request, it would have been 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.

The state board left open the possibility of taking up the matter again if the two sides cannot come to an agreement.

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