Educators divided on doing away with seniority

  • Article by: KIM MCGUIRE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 17, 2012 - 10:26 PM

What is not up for debate are the causes of school layoffs.

Lynda Ihlan thinks she is a good teacher.

But like a lot of Minnesota educators, she worries about holding on to her job. The threat, Ihlan believes, is legislation approved by the state House of Representatives this week that upends the current seniority-based system directing teacher layoffs and replaces it with one that also considers performance and licensure.

"When you go to a surgeon, do you want one with one year experience or 15 years experience?" said Ihlan, a Farmington middle school science teacher with 14 years of experience under her belt. "We learn as we go. Just like any other profession, teachers get better with time."

Still, Ihlan, who opposes the bill, acknowledges that sometimes good teachers get laid off under the current seniority-based system -- one of the chief complaints among the legislation's supporters.

The controversial bill stands to be a divisive issue for Minnesota teachers, already under pressure to boost student achievement and help close the state's nagging achievement gap. Supporters say that's why lawmakers must act with urgency and approve the plan.

"We have students who are waiting for an answer as to why they're not learning at the level they should be," said Rep. Sondra Erickson, R-Princeton, chairwoman of the Education Reform Ccommittee.

Minnesota is one of about a dozen states that makes seniority the only factor in layoffs. If the proposed legislation becomes law, the state would join about 18 others that have moved toward performance-based decisions in the past two years.

The legislation, sponsored by Rep. Branden Petersen, R-Andover, calls for creating a new system in which teachers rated as ineffective would lose their jobs first, from least senior to most senior within that category. It would essentially end what's more commonly known as "last in, first out," or LIFO.

By no surprise, the bill is drawing significant opposition from the state teachers' unions, which say such a change would encourage districts to lay off older, more highly paid teachers in an effort to save money.

They also say the move is unnecessary, pointing to the fact that many districts have contracts with their teachers in which layoffs aren't dictated solely by seniority.

"I think this is a bad way to solve a problem that doesn't exist," said LeMoyne Corgard, an elementary physical education teacher in the Anoka-Hennepin school district who's taught for 34 years.

What's not in debate is the fact that a growing number of Minnesota schools are laying off teachers and staff members to grapple with declining enrollment, shrinking property tax bases and unfunded mandates.

Jeanne Fimmen expects to get a pink slip next week.

Fimmen, a third-grade English teacher on the verge of earning tenure, expects she'll be rehired once the budget is completed, but says teachers shouldn't face such hardships solely because they have less experience than others.

She called the current law "archaic."

"Even if I wasn't facing this situation, I would still believe that these kinds of decisions should be based on what's best for kids," she said. "That's not how it works now and it needs to change. It's not fair."

Complications

Erin Gavin, an eighth-grade reading teacher at Brooklyn Center, said she's seen good teachers lose their jobs because of the current system. But that doesn't mean that ineffective teachers always find shelter within seniority, she said.

Still, she said, changes are needed.

"I support the legislation because what I want most for kids, no matter their life circumstance, is to be able to learn," Gavin said. "In the end, I think we need to keep teachers who are helping kids learn in the classroom."

Identifying good teachers and weeding out the bad ones has been the crux of debate unfolding within Minnesota education circles for years.

Last year, the National Council on Teacher Quality gave Minnesota an "F" for its ineffectiveness in dismissing poor-performing teachers, in part because of the seniority-only law.

And the state lost out on the first round of federal Race to the Top funds because of its failure to address ineffective teaching, among other factors.

The state is currently in the midst of developing its first formal teacher evaluation process. A task force is working out the details of that plan, including how to connect student and teacher performance. Petersen's bill would go into effect in 2015, one year after that process is expected to be in place.

Legislation opponents have argued that to help Minnesota students legislators should focus on finding a way to sustainably fund schools.

"I worry this is a distraction," said Julie Blaha, head of Anoka-Hennepin school district's teacher union. "The real question is not how do we do layoffs. The question should be, 'Why are we doing layoffs?' "

Kim McGuire • 612-673-4469

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    Sen. Pam Wolf, R-Spring Lake Park, is sponsoring similar teacher seniority legislation in the Senate. It's scheduled to be discussed Tuesday in the Senate Education Committee.

  • Lynda Ihlan, a Farmington middle school teacher, said that as in any other profession, teachers get better with time.

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