The State Board of Education backed away Wednesday from a labor dispute over seniority for Hartford schoolteachers, avoiding for the moment an issue that is part of a volatile debate over school quality.

Is seniority a hard-won union right that protects experienced teachers against indiscriminate layoffs or arbitrary dismissals?

Or is it a roadblock to school reform?

Those questions are at the heart of a bitter dispute over an attempt by Hartford school officials to limit teachers’ and administrators’ seniority rights. A string of speakers, including union officials, denounced the idea at Wednesday’s state board meeting.

“Don’t step into this morass,” Edwin Vargas Jr., former president of the Hartford Federation of Teachers, warned board members. “Let the local stakeholders work this out.”

The board did exactly that.

“It’s far better for everybody . . . if the parties could work this out,” said state board Chairman Allan Taylor, who helped write a resolution that “strongly requests and encourages” Hartford school officials to enter discussions with teachers and administrators about the seniority issue.

The board, however, left open the possibility of taking up the matter again as early as next month if the two sides cannot come to an agreement.

The Hartford Board of Education last month asked the state board 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 more than 90 layoffs this year, including about 50 teachers.

The state board was asked to override existing union contracts, an action that some board members feared would have led to a lawsuit. Had the board agreed to the city’s request, 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.

However, one state board member questioned whether the state can alter union contracts.

“I don’t believe we have the legal authority to do that,” said Janet Finneran, herself a retired teacher. “I believe we’d find ourselves in the next day or so in court.”

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, 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 helped improve performance across the district.

The district 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.

The proposal to loosen existing seniority rules has drawn the support of some principals, parents and others. The current system “is not aligned with a smaller-school, theme-based academy approach – the very model . . . that has demonstrated success,” Jim Starr, the head of the school reform group Achieve Hartford, testified at a recent Hartford Board of Education meeting.

Teachers, however, have fought the proposed change.

They have accused Superintendent of Schools Steven Adamowski of union-busting, contending he wants to change seniority rules in order to get rid of the higher salaries of veteran teachers and reduce a looming $15 million budget deficit.

“I feel the superintendent is using this . . . to close his budget gap,” Andrea Johnson, president of the Hartford Federation of Teachers, told the state board. She said the proposed change would lead to favoritism, cause divisions among staff members and “create the stage for corruption in our schools.”

Seniority is a critical element in many union contracts, and some see the Hartford proposal as an attack on teachers. “Teachers and their professional livelihood are being demonized . . . and blamed for everything that’s wrong in public education,” Mary Loftus Levine of the Connecticut Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, told the state board.

Getting the two sides to discuss seniority would be a sign of progress. Each side has accused the other of being unwilling to talk.

“Sitting down and discussing this is one thing the superintendent has never, ever asked us to do,” Johnson said.

David Medina, a spokesman for Hartford Public Schools, said, “We had approached the union before and were rejected. We’re hoping something will come of this.”

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