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Los Angeles Settlement on Teacher Layoffs Ducks the Seniority Question

Plaintiffs and the local teachers' union reached an agreement April 8 designed to prevent 37 schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District from being decimated by layoffs.

Both parties say the settlement will help create a more stable teaching force by hiring new administrators, mentors to assist inexperienced teachers, counselors, and providing 40 hours of professional development for teachers in the schools. But notably, it does not alter the fundamentals of teachers' seniority rights—the very provisions that the plaintiffs sought to change when the suit was first filed in California superior court.

In 2010, the ACLU and others sued the district and the teachers' union on behalf of students in the schools, which were losing dozens of teachers during budget-based layoffs. Under state law and the district's collective-bargaining agreement, layoffs are made in the order of reverse seniority. (Many of the teachers serving in the schools were novices.)

In what was then deemed a landmark, a state judge in 2011 approved an agreement to shield the schools from being disproportionately hit by future layoffs. But United Teachers Los Angeles successfully challenged the agreement, noting that the judge hadn't addressed  their claims that the settlement would infringe on teachers' seniority rights, which are codified both in their contract and in California state law.

The new settlement no longer shields the schools from layoffs. It does create some monetary incentives for principals to stay and for the schools to get first pick of teaching talent. But in effect, that means that the state and district's seniority policies will stand.

State code allows seniority to be bypassed only for hard-to-staff subjects or for holding vaguely defined special qualifications or training. 

Union officials say the agreement preserves teachers' rights while improving working conditions in the schools that led to churn and a concentration of novices.

But over at EdSource, John Fensterwald reports about one important caveat, courtesy of a UTLA attorney: Next time there's another budget-driven layoff, it is up to the district to establish that the extra hours of teacher training provided through this settlement actually qualify any of the teachers for the state's seniority exemption.

It will certainly be a test of this settlement to see what happens should another budgetary crunch occur. Would the district press its case for bypassing those teachers—and would the union fight it?

The settlement in the case, Reed v. California, predates the Vergara v. California lawsuit, which attacks the state rules on layoffs. Arguments in that suit wrapped up last month; a judge's ruling is expected by summer.

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