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Court Rejects Decree Over L.A. Teacher Layoffs

A consent decree that shields three Los Angeles schools from layoffs because of their young teaching staffs potentially infringes the seniority rights of other teachers, a California appellate court has ruled.

The decision comes in a case that highlights the competing tensions in teacher layoffs brought about by the tough economy and the desire to reduce teacher turnover, especially for students in low-performing schools.

The 2-1 ruling by the 2nd District California Court of Appeal sides with United Teachers Los Angeles on the union's claim that it is entitled to a ruling on the merits of whether seniority rights may be set aside to shield certain schools from layoffs.

The decision stems from a class action filed on behalf of students at three low-performing schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District that lost up to two-thirds of their teachers during a 2009 reduction in force. The students claimed they were denied equal educational opportunities under the California Constitution. A state trial judge found that high turnover at the low-performing schools "devastates educational opportunity," and he enjoined further layoffs.

That led to a consent decree entered into by the school district, the students, and the private Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, which operates two of the three schools. The settlement called for any future layoffs to skip teachers at as many as 48 schools disproportionately affected by teacher turnover. (Education Week's Stephen Sawchuk covered the settlement here and here.)

The union appealed the settlement. In the Aug. 10 decision in Reed v. United Teachers Los Angeles, the midlevel state appeals court said the consent decree, though approved by the trial judge, was not a ruling on the merits of the students' constitutional claims. Both state law and the collective bargaining agreement between UTLA and the district require that layoffs be administered in reverse order of seniority, the appellate court said. Even if the collective bargaining provision could be set aside for due process considerations without a full determination of the merits, the seniority requirement in state law could not, the court said.

The dissenting judge said the union actively participated in the settlement hearing, including oral and written arguments.

"UTLA was heard and its due process rights were satisfied," said Justice Kathryn Doi Todd. "The law does not require more."

The union has a statement on the ruling here.

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