Area lawmakers seek to change teacher seniority rules

School boards could keep promising, younger teachers rather than being forced to retain senior teachers in times of layoffs under legislation carried by area lawmakers.

Sen. Pam Wolf, R-Spring Lake Park, and Rep. Branden Petersen, R-Andover, are carrying similar education reform bills that Republicans cite as one of their major reform items of this session.

Republicans look to end the “last in, first out” teacher layoff scenario in which teachers with the most seniority are automatically retained.

The Senate Education Committee on Monday, Feb. 13 took testimony on Wolf’s bill, which, if passed and signed into law, would go into effect in the 2016-17 school year.

“If anything I’d like to shorten the time,” Wolf said, speaking after the hearing, of the bill coming into effect. “My bottom line, my bottom motivation, is to have the best teachers in front of the kids,” said Wolf, an educator.

Under the legislation, school boards would be able to consider teacher licensure, evaluation outcomes and seniority in making layoff decisions. The legislation would apply to probationary teachers.

Both supporters and critics appeared before the education committee to speak on the bill.

Mason Strenge, 25, a university honors graduate and former statistics teacher in the Lakeville district who was laid off several years ago during a budget crunch, spoke of the trust school officials placed in his abilities — paying for a certification in statistics — and yet had to let him go.

“I do like this bill,” he said after the hearing. “I think there’s a need for a more holistic approach,” said Strenge, who now teachers at the Saint Paul Conservatory for Preforming Artists.

Lynnell Mickelsen, cofounder of Put Kids First, a group interested in teacher staffing issues in the Minneapolis School District, said she was appalled by the staffing decisions made in Minneapolis, one claiming a swath of younger, promising teachers.

“I tell you, it was jaw dropping,” she said.

Mickelsen spoke of a moral bankruptcy in current teacher layoff practices.

She self-diagnosed herself as pro union, politically coming from the branch of the DFL Party that produced the late U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone and other progressive Democrats.

Still, Mickelsen expressed regret that Democrats, in this issue, are running against the grain of the general public. “It really hurts the party’s credentials,” she said.

But others disagreed.

Curt Rock, a teacher in Foley, argued the Republican legislation reflected a one-size-fits-all mentality and fails to consider existing policies in school districts that deal with building teacher effectiveness.

Similar sentiments were voiced by Mary Cathryn Ricker, of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers, who argued that it was educational malpractice to wait until layoffs to address the issue of poor teachers.

“We’re not waiting for layoffs,” she said, citing approaches the federation has taken in regard to improving teacher performance.

Lynn Nordgren, of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, stressed the complexity of teaching — teachers and students are not a bunch of widgets, she said.

Nordgren, like Ricker, spoke of efforts by her federation at improving teacher quality — of nudging unfit teachers out of the profession.

“I do believe (teacher) evaluations and seniority need to be separated,” she said.

Nordgren expressed concern that an outspoken teacher who runs afoul of principal could fall victim to the proposed layoff changes not as the result of a lack of skill but willingness to voice an opinion. “We’ll be afraid at the end of the school year we will lose our job,” she said.

Other critics argued that more time should be allowed for better teacher evaluation models to be developed.

“This bill is kind of half way there,” said Sen. Patricia Torres Ray, DFL-Minneapolis, of Wolf’s legislation.

But Wolf shrugged off the question of waiting. “Personally, my opinion is that it’s a stall,” she said.

Her bill would not go into effect until a first grader today is in middle school.

“Do you want to wait until the first grader is in high school or a graduate before it takes effect?” Wolf asked.

No votes were taken on the legislation. One is expected later this week.

Wolf is hoping for bipartisan support.

If the committee passes the bill it would go directly to the Senate floor.

But because the Wolf and Petersen bills are different the legislation will end up in conference committee, she said.

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