At the Minnesota School Boards Association, I help represent over 2,000 school board members across the state. As debates around teacher layoff practices heat up at the Legislature (presently, in relation to H.F. 2), I believe it’s critical that we listen closely to school board members. They guide districts in hiring educators and are responsible for the painful job of letting them go when layoffs are required. As such, they bring an important perspective to this conversation.
I should start by saying that school board members’ first preference would be that layoffs not be needed, but unfortunately that is not our reality. Budget cuts are inevitable, and when layoffs do need to happen, our school boards need the ability to retain the excellent teachers that best fit the needs of the district, school and students.
And when I say that letting go of teachers is painful, I speak from personal experience.
I served as board member in the Anoka-Hennepin school district between 1998 and 2004, and during that time, we experienced severe budget cuts that resulted in staff reductions. When it came time in the board meeting to make the motion to lay off teachers, and we had before us a list of names that would be terminated based on seniority, there was a long silence.
No one wanted to make the motion because we knew these were the names of our newest hires—young, energetic educators loved by their students and community. As a district, we had just put time and money into their professional development, and now we had to let them go. Our hands were tied, and there was no assurance that we were retaining the best teachers for our students.
Locally elected school board members are ultimately the ones charged with making these staffing decisions—and they’re held responsible for the outcomes of their decisions. But how can school boards do their jobs well when, during layoffs, they can only consider seniority? When they can’t protect their less senior yet perhaps more effective educators?
We all know experience matters, but we also know that experience is not the only thing that matters. And sure enough, 91 percent of Minnesotans believe that teacher performance–not seniority—should be the primary factor in determining layoffs.
We’ve also all heard the argument that school districts already can negotiate local layoff plans. But, as a Star Tribune analysis recently pointed out, with quality-blind lay-offs set as the default, “school districts rarely depart from the seniority standard even when they can. In none of the contracts [analyzed] is performance, as measured by new statewide teacher evaluation standards now in effect, considered during layoff decisions."
H.F. 2 provides one approach to providing locally elected school boards additional flexibility in hiring and retaining teachers, a flexibility which, through the MSBA resolution process, our school board members have asked for. During the 2015 session, I hope we can deliver on that request.
I hope, too, that we can keep the conversation focused on what matters: protecting and retaining the best educators when teacher layoffs are required, giving school boards the flexibility they need to do their jobs well, and keeping all negotiating parties at the table to figure out the best local layoff plan, which can include seniority, but must include other factors, as well.
What matters most, of course, is doing what’s fair to Minnesota kids. Budget cuts and layoffs are always painful, but let’s at least alleviate some of that pain by giving our school boards the power to ground their decisions in what is best for students.
Denise Dittrich is the associate director of governmental relations at the Minnesota School Boards Association.
The MinnCAN blog allows Minnesota teachers, administrators, parents and advocates to share their thoughts on key education issues. Blogging fellows' and guest bloggers' views and opinions are solely their own.