Teacher realignment, twisted priorities?

Deep budget cuts force some teachers into unfamiliar subject areas – is their seniority valued over kids’ education?

Teacher realignment" was not a phrase most Minneapolis parents and teachers had heard of until a few weeks ago, when it became the latest panic button pushed in the Minneapolis Public Schools.

Following a projected 3,000-student enrollment decline for the coming school year, the Minneapolis district eliminated 520 teaching and school staff positions; including part-timers, 622 teachers and staff got pink slips. The cuts were so deep that 144 teachers with tenure (enhanced job protection) were laid off.

Those layoffs set off a seniority-driven chain reaction; teachers with more experience bumping less-senior colleagues from their expected ’04-’05 classroom assignments.

When the dust settled, 155 teachers found themselves in new schools or slots eight weeks before school opens. Most were bumped into specialties such as special education — subjects some had never taught.

The moves outraged several parents and teachers, who said "realigning" teachers into unfamiliar jobs would hurt student learning.

Said 20-year Minneapolis teacher Kathi Cracraft, whose 27-year-old son was laid off, "Is realignment the best practice for kids? No. Is it best for teachers? No.

"One primary result of this move will be [155] teachers placed in roles they do not want and that they are ill prepared for, which is hardly a recipe for good teaching. This is an absurd policy decision that seems divorced from reality."

District officials don’t disagree.

District spokeswoman Cheri Reese said teacher stability is key to a quality education, based on statistics and what parents, students and principals tell her.

"This revolving door of teachers, which is due to budget cuts, has been really hard on everybody," Reese said. "Many parents chose their children’s school based on what they know about the teachers. They like the stability of having the same team of teachers, especially through the middle grades."

However, district and union officials said job protection comes first — a priority mandated by state law.

"The issue is about preserving tenured teachers," said Louise Sundin, president of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers. "Without realignment, 155 more tenured teachers would have been laid off."

Sundin says teachers need a fair process to protect themselves from some administrators’ rampant favoritism. She said seniority is the only logical and fair way to lay off teachers.

District officials note that most classroom teachers bumped their colleagues reluctantly.

"The overwhelming majority [of realigned teachers] didn’t want these positions — they would have preferred to stay at the schools they were at," said district Human Resources Director Kerry Felt.

Final realignments won’t be settled until mid-August, Felt said. However, according to Reese, several dozen teachers in Southwest public schools will be realigned by the first day of school.

Musical chairs

The current round of educational musical chairs was set in motion in 1986, when Arlene Strand, a home economics teacher at Minneapolis Roosevelt High School, received a layoff notice.

Strand was also licensed to teach science. She maintained that she should be able to bump a less-senior science teacher, even though she had never taught the subject before.

(In Minnesota, every teacher must have a license to teach a subject, be it elementary education, math, physical education, English, history or a foreign language. Many teachers hold more than one license.)

The union agreed with Strand and sued the Minneapolis Schools on her behalf. The Minnesota Supreme Court also sided with Strand, and the Minnesota Teacher Tenure Law was born.

Cut to 2004. This time, 280 tenured teachers were in Strand’s shoes. Felt said that the district, in conjunction with teacher’s union lawyers, did the realignment according to Strand rules.

Here’s how those rules played out:

Budget cuts and enrollment drops start the ball rolling. The district cut individual school budgets. Each school’s principal determined how to cut positions based on the money available (for a list of how Southwest principals did it, see sidebar, this page).

Within each school, the least senior teachers were let go.

But they weren’t laid-off; in district-speak, they were "excessed" — placed in a job pool. Based on their seniority and licenses, "excessed" teachers bid on open jobs that sprung up, for example, due to retirements.

The most-senior teachers filled the open slots, but there weren’t enough openings to accommodate all tenured teachers.

That’s when "realignment" kicked in.

The district created new openings by releasing all untenured teachers. It then began plugging "excessed" tenured teachers into those jobs. It continually moved teachers within their licensed areas until the most-senior teachers had jobs. Some tenured junior teachers still had to be laid off.

Prior to realignment, untenured teachers made up most of the special education staff. Thus, special ed is where many senior classroom teachers moved if they held the right license.

Senior teachers, Felt noted, "did have a choice. Less than a dozen teachers got stuck in positions [wherein] they had to take the only remaining job available or leave the district."

Of course, some were unhappy about the options.

Sundin told the story of one teacher who came to the union’s realignment meeting angry at her employment choices for the coming school year. Following the meeting, however, when she faced some of the 144 tenured teachers without jobs who had come to the union hall to file for unemployment, she realized her plight was not as bad as theirs.

The survivors and the bumped

For Charles Cracraft, a 27-year-old Southwest High School health and physical education teacher and assistant track and cross-country coach, his tenure meant nothing. His mother Kathi took the news of her son’s layoff hard.

"My son had four years teaching experience in the Minneapolis schools … but it was still not enough to save his job," Kathi Cracraft said.

Connie Rubinstein, a prekindergarten High Five teacher at Armatage Community School, 2501 W. 56th St. went to through the process with more clout. The Fulton resident has 25 years of experience, the highest seniority of anyone with her licenses in the district. When the district cut Armatage’s High Five program, Rubinstein was able to create a full-time High Five job from two half-time positions, one at Bryn Mawr School, 252 Upton Ave. S. and the other at Whittier Community School for the Arts, 2620 Grand Ave.

Said Rubinstein, "I feel badly for the parents who are being affected by this. There are many different sides and many different ways to look at this. But it has been very disheartening for my colleagues who have put in between 20 and 25 years in the Minneapolis Schools and who are being realigned. There is something to be said for years of service and loyalty and expertise that allows you to give the very best to those kids that’s been overlooked."

Rubinstein acknowledges that the current system doesn’t always keep the best teachers.

"Yes, there are teachers who have put in many years who need to be out, and yes, we have to figure out a way to get fresh young blood into the system because they bring a ton of good energy to a staff," she said. "They have got to figure this out."

Felt said some reassignments would be undone. For example, as of July 16, 25 tenured teachers have signed up for an Aug. 12 hearing on their realignment.

A way around Strand?

Parents, some teachers and School Board members are trying to figure out if there is any way around Strand. Margaret Westin, the district assistant general counsel, said her department is currently looking into that.

However, even School Board members who have asked for the review admit any solution won’t help this school year. And beyond that, the legal hopes seem bleak. State law specifically mandates that Minneapolis and St. Paul follow Strand — those teacher rights can’t be collectively bargained away.

Some hope that the realignments might be disruptive enough to violate the court’s ruling that Strand moves be "reasonable and practical…to continue the employment of senior teachers."

While still researching the possibilities, Westin notes that Strand hasn’t been challenged in 18 years, indicating the district’s procedures used since then are legally solid.

The district could ask the Legislature to change the law. Such a move is unlikely if there is a special session this year, given a backlog of old problems and likely union resistance. However, the School Board or legislators could decide to press for a new law in the 2005 legislative session.