Examining teacher seniority rules

Teacher placement system debated at League of Women Voters of Minneapolis forum

TANGLETOWN – When seniority is a primary factor in deciding where teachers get placed in Minneapolis Public Schools, is it a matter of respect for career professionals? Does it protect teachers or tie the hands of principals? Or does the system disrespect the educational decisions of parents and administrators?

The contentious issue of teacher placement was the subject of an April 19 panel discussion hosted by the League of Women Voters of Minneapolis. The two-hour debate was held in front of a full house in the basement of the Mayflower Church on Diamond Lake Road.

The controversy starts when there is an opening at a public school in Minneapolis. Under current rules, any qualified teacher can bid for that position.

Some of those teachers may have been "excessed," in district parlance, meaning their previous position at a school was cut. Others will be voluntarily seeking a new position.

If the most senior applicant for a teacher position was excessed from her previous job, she is granted "superseniority" and will automatically fill the open position. It doesn’t matter if the school’s hiring team prefers a less-senior candidate.

A teacher voluntarily changing positions must interview for the new job and get an approval signature from the principal. The principal can withhold a signature for educational reasons.

Of the approved applicants, the most senior will get the open position.

Louise Sundin, former Minneapolis Federation of Teachers president, argued the hiring process grants teachers the privileges enjoyed by other professionals.

"Other workers can make decisions about where they work, the proximity to daycare and a lot of other things," Sundin said. "And that is a respectful thing to do … to allow teachers to have equal say in where they work."

But on a lopsided panel, Sundin was alone in defending seniority-based teacher placement. Current Federation President Robert Panning-Miller and Vice President Brionna Harder pulled out of the debate citing ongoing contract negotiations with the district.

Among the three panelists opposing Sundin was Joan Franks, principal of Armatage Community and Montessori School. Franks described the frustration she feels when she must hire the most senior teacher instead of the teacher who best fits her building’s culture and mission.

"You as parents should be holding me accountable in my school for the achievement of the kids," she said. "But the big question that is raised is: How can you hold me accountable if I have no say in the people I’m bringing into the school?"

Former Minneapolis Principal Carol Markham-Cousins said she once shared Franks’ frustration. Now principal of a St. Paul Spanish immersion magnet, Markham-Cousins has more power in the hiring process.

In St. Paul, teachers who were excessed have seniority rights to open positions, much like Minneapolis teachers. But when the job candidates are voluntary transfers, St. Paul principals can choose whomever they want, regardless of seniority.

Markham said St. Paul’s system, known as interview-and-select, still puts senior teachers in jobs, just not necessarily the positions they want.

Franks said she was "impassioned" by the interview-and-select process.

"It’s not that I don’t care about teachers – because I certainly do," she said. "But I care about your kids."

A cornerstone of Franks’ argument was the need for a cohesive building culture.

"Teachers are not widget workers," Frank said. "They come in with a variety of skills, and they’re working with kids that have a variety of needs."

But Sundin countered that teachers know where they are a good fit. Teachers often research a school and speak with staff members before applying to an open position, she said.

Providing some perspective on how Minneapolis came to value seniority so highly was the fourth panel member, Roger Aronson, an attorney who represents the Minnesota Principals’ Unions.

Aronson explained the teacher’s union won the right through tough negotiations with the School Board several decades ago. The School Board could regain some leverage in those negotiations, he suggested, by offering teachers a few of the things they really want, like smaller class sizes and higher wages.

Reach Dylan Thomas at dthomas@mnpubs.com or 436-4391.