2014-03-20 / Editorial

Viewpoint

In support of House bill 7026
By Cathy Kaiser

Every spring I testify in support of bills that would move the teacher layoff notification date from March 1 to a date later in the school year. This year’s bill (H-7026), sponsored by Rep. Deb Ruggiero, extends the notification requirement for non-renewal of teachers from March 1 to June 1.

On March 1 of any given year, there remain many budgetary unknowns, such as the funding of federal grants, the level of state funding, out-of-district tuition rates, health and dental insurance rates, and military enrollment figures for the coming year.

At its February meeting, the Jamestown School Committee issued nonrenewal notices to all of our nontenured teachers. Because in February we are barely past the mid-year point and are still in the initial stages of the budgetary process, it is our duty to provide for all possible scenarios.

Moving the notification date to June 1 would allow school committees to have a more precise understanding of finances for the following year, as well as more accurate knowledge of impending retirements and resignations, resulting in fewer nonrenewal notices – fewer teachers being needlessly stressed.

I urge Jamestowners to read Rep. Ruggiero’s bill, available on the General Assembly website. The bill amends sections 16-13-2, 16-13-3, 16-13-4, 16-13-6 and 16- 13-8 of Rhode Island General Law to push back the notification date for teachers laid off due to budget constraints, program reorganization or a substantial decrease in pupil enrollment. It is important to note that only in the case of a substantial decrease in pupil population (section 16-13-6) does current law specify that teachers be recalled in order of seniority.

Despite the fact that Rep. Ruggiero’s bill does not amend or remove this population-specific recall provision, Patrick Crowley, the National Education Association of Rhode Island, expressed concern in last week’s Jamestown Press (“Education bills divide union, school board”) that “changing the date without accounting for teachers’ rights to return to their jobs in inverse seniority would violate collective bargaining agreements.”

In other words, the union won’t support a change in the notification date unless it is accompanied by an extension of the “recall-byseniority” provision to all teachers, not just those laid off due to a substantial decrease in enrollment.

This is exactly what the unionsupported bill H-7193 does, and it’s why I testified in opposition. The bill moves the notification date to May 15, while also requiring that seniority be the controlling factor for all nonrenewals (except those due to job performance) and all recalls.

Using seniority as the sole criteria in these areas is in direct violation of the state Department of Education’s Basic Education Program regulations, which specify that each district “shall maintain control of its ability to recruit, hire, manage, evaluate, and assign its personnel.”

As proposed, H-7193 would take this authority away from the superintendent and base recall solely on the number of years worked, ignoring factors such as recent experience in relevant subject matter and effectiveness with specific student populations.

Some may question why seniority shouldn’t be a controlling factor. Don’t school districts value the experience of veteran teachers?

Of course we do. However, consider two examples of how the provisions of H-7193 could play out.

A laid-off 6th grade teacher with 15 years experience at that grade level would be recalled to fill a first grade position before a veteran first grade teacher with fewer years experience. Or, similarly, a veteran middle-school teacher with dual certification in science and math – who has never actually taught math – would be recalled to fill a math position before a veteran math teacher with fewer years of experience.

In Jamestown, current language in the teacher contract stipulates that teacher recall is determined “based upon the superintendent’s assessment of what teacher is the most highly effective staff member to meet the particular student needs in the open position,” with seniority being used as a tiebreaker in the event that two employees are deemed by the superintendent to be equally highly effective.

We believe this language speaks to the rights of all teachers, not just the most senior, while also meeting the needs of our students.

Although some may argue that our language could enable an administration to make recall decisions based on the potential cost savings associated with retaining less senior teachers, community and state expectations for continuing student improvement clearly place students, not finances, at the center of all hiring, evaluation and assignment decisions.

Last week’s Press article ended with Mr. Crowley’s hope that “someday leaders like Ms. Kaiser might be willing to meet us halfway on this important issue so that some progress can be made.”

When halfway is in the best interest of both teachers and students, we can certainly talk.

The author is chairwoman of the Jamestown School Committee.

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