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Judge leaning toward approving changes in teacher seniority rules in L.A. Unified

December 14, 2010 |  7:17 pm

A Los Angeles County Superior Court judge on Tuesday stuck to a tentative ruling that would change the "last hired, first fired" rules that control which teachers get laid off during budget cutbacks in the L.A. Unified School District.

For the most part, Judge William F. Highberger continued to side with parties on a settlement meant to protect schools from suffering high teacher turnover during layoffs. Under the tentative agreement, reached in October, the district would apply seniority rules campus by campus to distribute layoffs more evenly across the nation’s second-largest school system. That way, schools that depended heavily on inexperienced teachers would not be decimated. In addition, up to 45 at-risk schools could be protected completely from layoffs, as part of a plan that links this protection to academic improvement.

Highberger also said that he was willing to consider new evidence and hear further arguments during three days of formal hearings set to begin Jan. 18. The parties in favor of the settlement are L.A. Unified, students represented by public-interest attorneys and the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools — a nonprofit that operates 15 district schools on behalf of L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. Opposing the settlement is United Teachers Los Angeles, the district’s teachers union.

In his arguments, UTLA attorney Jesus Quinones said that the proposed remedy tramples unnecessarily on the collective bargaining agreement as well as seniority protections in state law. Another UTLA attorney, Richard Schwab said the high turnover could have been avoided by hiring more veteran teachers at the three schools with the highest turnover—and these schools had decided to avoid veteran teachers.

Attorney Sean Gates, representing the other side, offered a different scenario. He said that qualified veteran teachers have avoided assignments at persistently low-performing schools, which often are located in high-crime areas far from the homes of veteran teachers.

Highberger said he wanted to see evidence in support of the contrasting positions. But UTLA still faces the burden of pushing the judge off his tentative determination: that the existing seniority rules harm students and, under this circumstance, changes to seniority rules are constitutionally valid under state law.

-- Howard Blume