House votes to reduce seniority as teacher layoff factor

Published 10:15 am Friday, March 6, 2015

By Albert Lea Tribune and Associated Press

ST. PAUL — The Minnesota House has passed a divisive Republican bill that would minimize the role of seniority in teacher layoff decisions statewide.

School boards would be required to include evaluations of teachers in layoff decisions under the proposal. The Republican-controlled House passed the bill 70 to 63 largely along party lines, and it has a difficult road ahead. Gov. Mark Dayton in 2012 vetoed a similar change to Minnesota’s “last in, first out” layoff system, and Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, has said he doesn’t support it.

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Debate over the bill, which would also streamline the licensing process for out-of-state teachers, lasted for hours Thursday as minority Democrats criticized what they said would lead to cutthroat competition between educators.

“Minnesota students deserve world-class education and deserve to keep the most effective teachers in the classroom to help put them on the path toward success,” said District 27A Rep. Peggy Bennett, R-Albert Lea, a co-author on the bill who is also a former first-grade teacher.

Bennett, who serves on both the Education Finance Committee and as vice chairwoman of the Education Innovation and Policy Division, said the bill helps districts retain their most effective teachers in the event of a layoff. It also addresses a teacher shortage across the state.

“I look forward to continuing to work with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle on ways to improve Minnesota schools,” she said.

Currently, districts can negotiate their own layoff criteria. If they not choose not to, they default to the state standard, which is largely based on seniority.

Republicans have several allies in their push, including the Minnesota School Boards Association and the state Business Partnership, which represent some of Minnesota’s biggest employers. Proponents say basing layoff decisions on seniority — as more than half of the state’s districts currently do — stifles classroom innovation because young teachers are the first to go when districts fall on hard times. The bill’s layoff changes wouldn’t kick in until the 2017-2018 school year.

But opponents like the powerful teachers union Education Minnesota say the move will kill collaboration between teachers, who will have no reason to help each other when it could jeopardize their own standing.

“It turns that collaborative culture on its head and says, ‘Look out for yourself,”’ said Rep. Jim Davnie, DFL-Minneapolis.

Others point to the fact that far more teachers leave for retirement or personal reasons than staff reductions. According to the state Department of Education, 350 teachers lost their jobs due to workforce cuts in the 2012-2013 school year, just 6 percent of total attrition.

It’s unclear how much the bill would cost districts to implement. An estimate from the state said the price tag could be “significant,” as schools would have to negotiate new layoff policies and hire panels of experts to hear the appeals of teachers who felt they were unfairly laid off.

That state report also said the bill would cost Minnesota almost $900,000 over two years, mostly in new staff and IT work. Republicans have disputed the claim, and chief author Rep. Jenifer Loon, R-Eden Prairie, said Thursday that state budget officials have told her they’ll lower their estimate.

Minnesota’s Board of Teaching would have to loosen its policies for granting licenses to teachers from other states under another provision in the bill. Advocates of that change have told stories of educators licensed elsewhere retaking college courses to get a license despite having relevant classroom experience.

The licensing change is aimed at curbing a teacher shortage affecting areas such as math, science and special education. That’s also the thought behind another part of the bill, which makes it easier for school administrators to hire unlicensed “community experts” to teach when they can’t find anyone with a license to do it.

Opponents say those changes will only lower the bar for Minnesota teachers. A unanimous vote Thursday added a stipulation requiring schools to notify parents before placing their children in community experts’ classrooms.