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Alice Mercer: Veteran Teachers Not a Priority in High Priority Schools

Guest post by Alice Mercer.

All eyes are on Chicago, and the record school closures taking place in that city. But this is a drama being played out in cities across the country, including my own, as "right-sizing", the Broad way, takes over. By now, many would have (or should have) heard that in Chicago, the projected savings have disappeared (or didn't exist in the first place), and in the face of massive protests, the mayor has thrown $55M to a classic "Edifice complex " (my husband's term for hubristic public works projects). Public will has been ignored, and the press has been muzzled.

Now we come home to Sacramento. Once again, projected savings - questionable; public will - ignored; press inquiries - we'll get back to you...much later; last, but not least, reality-based decision-making - completely absent. Let me share the sad tale of woe that has befallen my district (and to a greater degree, at least 50 teachers). When schools close or their enrollment declines, teachers lose their position (not their job, but the school they are assigned to). This can happen to teachers that have plenty of seniority, especially in the case of school closures. There were a large number of teachers looking for new positions because of my districts decision to "right-size" (with seven schools that's over 10% of the elementary schools in the district). The way that is handled is covered by our contract. At a mutually agreed upon date, the district holds a surplus meeting. All open positions in the district are listed, and the teachers pick based on their hiring date (seniority). One problem...with over 50 teachers left needing a placement, the district ran out of jobs. Oops.

This all comes back to the Superintendent's "priority schools" which have led to the following:

  • A number of schools in the district (7) are outside of the contract process for hiring, and surplusing (or movement) of teachers;
  • Those same schools are receiving students from closing schools, but getting in as a teacher is another matter;
  • This is bad for both teachers and the kids involved.

What is a "priority school"? In the early days of RttT (Race to the Top), while Gloria Romero was still chair of the California State Senate Education committee, the state was desperate (and I mean desperate) to get Race to the Top money. In the face of enormous budget short-falls at that time, it was much too tempting. So they enacted a number of policies to "qualify" to apply for RttT money that they of course, never got. One provision was for the state to identify its lowest 5% of schools and reform them using one of their "research-based" reform methods (I kid, there is no research to support what they proposed). I was working at the one school in the Sacramento-area that was identified for this "extreme" make-over. For good measure, the superintendent threw in two more elementary schools, two middle schools, and one high school and called them "priority schools". A third middle-school was added the second year. These were likely added in an attempt to get SIG money, but after two failed attempts to secure a grant, they succeeded in only getting money for Oak Ridge, the only school identified by the state as low-performing. I'm not teaching there anymore, and you can read about why here.

The salient point is that in addition to making these schools a priority, the staffing at these schools underwent a change that now has created swiss-cheese-like holes in our teaching contracts. You see, the schools are allowed to hire teachers outside the district surplus process, and only have to take surplus teachers they want. Open positions at "priority schools" are not on the district's list of available positions at the surplus meeting. They've made a practice of picking up the least senior teachers, and even brand-new hires from outside the district. This has occurred while elementary teachers with up to 7 years of seniority are still out of work. In addition, they are exploiting a little-used provision of the State Education Code saying these teachers have "specialized training" that other teachers lack, and should be "skipped" in layoffs. That has exacerbated the entire lay-off process as teachers at priority schools with less than 5 years of seniority have never gotten a pink-slip, while teachers with up to 8 years of seniority have, and those with seven never returned. You can read the bottom of this article about this.

What has this done for these schools? Well, like the results nationally for SIG-eligible schools, the results are mixed. Since that last article, scores at Oak Ridge (which were higher in year one) were not as good. In the meantime, this has not created staff "stability" as teachers with any seniority (and many without) have left.

What it has done to our teachers, and our union is poisonous. We now have an entire class of teachers who owe their continued employment as a teacher to their principal's good will alone. They have no contract protection, because they can be "administratively" transferred out of their school, and then they will be laid off because of their low seniority. The way the administrators have set things up it's just going to get worse. Always hiring teachers with the least seniority, having large turnovers of staff may not be great for the kids but it's wonderful for making a contract useless, undermining teacher morale, and pitting teachers against each other.

What do you think? Have you seen patterns emerging of veteran teachers being discarded?

Alice Mercer teaches 6th grade in Sacramento. This was originally posted at her blog here.

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