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Teacher Seniority Still a Four-Letter Word to Administration -- 'LIFO'

Last-in, first-out seniority continues to irk Christie and Cerf, administration issues survey on subject.

For all its celebration of New Jersey’s new teacher tenure law, the Christie administration hasn’t hidden its lament for the one provision it couldn’t change: seniority protection for tenured teachers in the case of layoffs.

But it hasn’t given up on building its case.

In an unusual request, the state Department of Education last week sent a short survey to every district and charter school asking them about their layoffs of teachers -- technically called “reductions in force” (RIFs) -- over the past five years, and about the impact of seniority protection on their “ability to manage their personnel.”

The survey will “help us determine how prevalent RIFs are, who they are affecting, and how they impact retention of effective educators,” read the memo from Peter Shulman, the state’s assistant education commissioner.

“Data gained from this survey will help us better define State efforts around recruitment and retention,” he wrote.

State Education Commissioner Chris Cerf said this weekend that there wasn’t any specific agenda to the survey, only a wish to gain some hard information as to how the seniority protections affect districts.

“The empirical question I had was how consequential is this in terms of its practical impact on districts,” Cerf said. “We know about it in the abstract, but how does it have real consequences?”

The primary question in the survey asks districts and charter to rate how much the seniority rule reduces -- or increases -- the district’s management flexibility.

Cerf’s said he knows it is a big obstacle for the administrations of large school systems such as Newark, where dropping enrollments have left hundreds of teachers identified as excess but few mechanisms to let them go.

He was less sure for smaller ones, although he added that tightening state and local budgets signal the future possibility of reduced staffing for them as well.

“Right now, it may be a huge impact on a relatively select number of districts,” he said.

Under previous and current state law, districts laying off tenured teachers must do so in order of seniority, a practice known as “last in, first out,” or LIFO.

LIFO had been in the crosshairs of Gov. Chris Christie and some legislators involved in crafting the new tenure law, which for the first time directly links gaining tenure to positive job evaluations.

But in the negotiations and compromises that led to the unanimous passage of the bill, the seniority provisions survived.

Christie has since said that was his one regret about the new law, although he has taken a conciliatory tone of late, saying he understood he couldn’t get everything he wanted.

The teachers unions that helped put together the new tenure law have said that ending of LIFO was a line that they would not cross. The chief sponsor of the measure, state Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), said she was unlikely to see the bill passed without the unions’ support.

This weekend, Cerf said there were no immediate plans for revisiting the topic in new legislation to end LIFO. He said the results of the survey would help determine how big a priority it should be for the administration.

Still, he didn’t rule it out.

“Obviously the timing would be up to the governor’s office,” Cerf said. “But I don’t think any of us have retreated from the idea.”

Continue reading on NJSpotlight.com.

NJ Spotlight is an issue-driven news website that provides critical insight to New Jersey’s communities and businesses. It is non-partisan, independent, policy-centered and community-minded.

raymond Weis November 28, 2012 at 02:29 PM
This is a two edged sword. The administration says it will help them eliminate less qualified teachers. On the face of it this sounds good, but on the other hand there is nothing to stop the powers that be from deciding that ten teachers straight out of college would save thousands of dollars over ten teachers with twenty years experience. How to rectify this would tie up the teachers and the school districts in the courts for years just making the lawyers wealthy and accomplishing nothing.
Joe R November 28, 2012 at 09:51 PM
Excellent point, Ray. In school districts strapped for money or just looking to cut expenses (that would be all of them), the temptation to purge the older more expensive teachers would be overwhelming. In most professions, experience is valued but in teaching experience and having advanced degrees could become a real handicap if they eliminate tenure, LIFO and seniority.
Bob Davidoff November 30, 2012 at 07:20 PM
anyone realize yet that in these other countries that are beating us in math and science the kids dont all get an education? In china many poor and lower functioning children go to work not to school.. Comparing US schools to other countries is simply a ploy for the GOP and our lovely governor to demonize and teachers and privitize everything. Our schools are not failing.

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