Partner and Labor Law Attorney Deborah Willig Quoted on Possible Philadelphia School District Layoffs
July 7, 2014
Philadelphia Teachers Fight for Seniority in Layoff Decisions (Wall Street Journal)
By Scott Calvert
Philadelphia's public-school system and its teachers union are clashing over whether the district can bypass seniority in deciding layoffs and other staff changes, a dispute that echoes a renewed national debate about teacher tenure.
District officials contend they need the flexibility amid financial woes that led to 3,800 layoffs last year and likely will mean more this year. Superintendent William Hite Jr. said he expects at least 100 more layoffs this year, even with city schools set to receive up to $45 million from a $2-a-pack cigarette tax increase in Philadelphia.
"We're trying to operate more responsibly fiscally and make sure we have a system in place that allows principals—school leaders—to select the best people, not those individuals who have the longest years of service," Mr. Hite said.
The fight reflects a national debate about teacher protections. Pennsylvania is one of five states where teacher seniority is the only factor in determining who gets laid off. Last month, a judge in California overturned that state's strong teacher-tenure laws, invigorating opponents seeking to challenge similar laws around the country.
But Philadelphia, whose 135,000 students make it one of the nation's largest school systems, has its own complications. Since a 2001 state takeover spurred in part by major financial problems and woeful test scores, the system has been governed by the School Reform Commission, a five-member board jointly appointed by the governor and mayor. State law permits the commission to suspend some parts of the school law, including seniority protections for employees.
The union contends this power is trumped by the teacher contract. Although the contract expired in August 2013, the union argues that its terms are still in place, including one that says layoffs can happen only by seniority. The state's high court recently declined the district's request that it take up the question.
District officials are "operating in their own arrogant, unilateral fashion," said Deborah Willig, a lawyer for the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, which has about 15,000 members.
Last year, the Philadelphia schools carried out layoffs according to seniority. But it hired staffers back without considering longevity, prompting a flurry of grievances from the union that are pending before arbitrators. Mr. Hite said the district could owe millions of dollars if arbitrators side with the union.
This spring, the district told principals who faced staff reductions for the coming year that they could avoid losing valued junior teachers to seniority-based transfers if they had a "compelling reason," such as showing an educator had "a measurable positive impact on student achievement."
In the past, Mr. Hite said, seniority rules meant that veteran teachers could bump less experienced educators out of schools in low-income areas, even though the relative novices showed greater commitment to students.
The union notes that the district already often disregards seniority when filling vacant positions from within the system. Instead of giving an open slot to the applicant with the longest tenure, a school-based committee reviews candidates and gives the principal a recommendation.
The debate raises some thorny issues. Seniority is a generally weak indicator of teacher effectiveness, but subjective criteria that vary among principals also can be problematic, said Matthew Steinberg, an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Graduate School of Education.
"The idea here is you want to raise the overall quality of the teacher labor pool in Philadelphia," he said. "But if you allow for idiosyncratic retention decisions at the local level, that's not necessarily going to happen."
State lawmakers are considering a bill that would base layoffs on new teacher evaluations. The measure also would allow furloughs for budget reasons; layoffs now can occur only if enrollment drops or programs are cut.
Last year, the Philadelphia school system's financial problems nearly kept it from opening on time, until city leaders promised $50 million that was used to recall some laid-off teachers, guidance counselors and other employees. A district spokesman said 1,649 of the 3,800 laid-off employees were called back to work.
This year the school commission—whose members have clamored for more money from both the city and state and for concessions from the teachers union—approved a $2.6 billion budget with a $93 million hole. The cigarette tax increase is expected to raise $40-$45 million this fiscal year, partially closing the budget gap, and to bring in twice as much revenue in future years.
In addition to eyeing 100 or more layoffs, Mr. Hite said the district hopes to extract "millions in savings" in ongoing contract negotiations with the teachers union.