Last in, first out education bill passes Minnesota Senate

Wolf authors teacher layoff bill

T.W. Budig
ECM Capitol Reporter
A so-called Last In, First Out education bill could soon be dropped on the desk of Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton.

The Senate on Monday, Feb. 27 by 36 to 26 vote — Sen. Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka, joining with Republicans — passed the legislation authored by Sen Pam Wolf, R-Spring Lake Park, that would place teacher effectiveness over seniority in terms of school boards deciding which teachers would stay and go during teacher layoffs.

“There is definite teacher support (for the legislation),” Wolf said prior to the Senate floor session.

Indeed, the only opposition to the bill, Wolf said on the Senate floor, is coming from the teachers’ union, Education Minnesota.

Wolf and other supporters argue that promising young teachers are often the fall-guys during layoffs, pushed out by teachers who have more seniority but who are not necessary better teachers.

Seniority, Wolf explained, does not automatically translate to experience. A more experienced teacher, depending on when they signed their contract with a school district, could also be laid-off for a less experienced, less robust teacher.

It depends who signed first on the dotted line, she explained.

“This is not an anti-teacher measure,” said Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Gen Olson, R-Minnetrista, speaking prior to the floor session.

There’s no reason for good teachers to fear this legislation, she said.

“They have nothing to worry about,” she said.

The legislation would go into effect beginning in the 2015-16 school year, after a task force on teacher evaluation submits recommendations, Wolf explained.

School districts and their teachers could implement their own plan quicker if they wish, Wolf said.

The Senate version of the LIFO legislation applies to probationary teachers — a Bonoff amendment — while the House bill, recently passed, does not.

But the Senate legislation was roundly criticized during Senate floor debate today by Democratic senators.

“This is really premature,” said Sen. LeRoy Stumpf, DFL-Plummer, former senate education committee chairman. Stumpf styled the task of forming a fair, comprehensive teacher evaluation model one of the most difficult tasks ever given educators in Minnesota.

Sen. Barb Goodwin, DFL-Columbia Heights, questioned if a rational teacher evaluation model could be found.

“This is another attack on collective bargaining rights,” Goodwin said of the bill.

Other Democrats argued that the legislation was an invitation for school district officials to get rid of highly paid teachers in favor of lowered paid ones.

“You’ve gotten a little cynical,” Olson said to Sen. David Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm, who made the argument.

But Tomassoni countered by saying he’s learned in life that cynical people are often correct.

Other Democrats argued that the bill showed poor priorities, that the focus should not be on how to handle teacher layoffs but on providing enough school funding to prevent layoffs.

Sen. Jeff Hayden, DFL-Minneapolis, urged the Republicans to try a different tack. “That kind of doesn’t smell that it might be something else,” he said, suggesting the real intentions behind the bill are left unspoken.

Sen. Kenneth Kelash, DFL-Minneapolis, questioned why a young person, given the low starting wage, would even want to enter the teaching profession. Kelash viewed the legislation as chipping away at one of the things that might encourage a young person to enter the field, the idea that if they persist eventually they could gain tenure.

Education Minnesota President Tom Dooher in a statement voiced criticisms heard on the Senate floor.

“Instead of tackling the serious issues facing our schools, these (House and Senate) bills will make it easier for school administrators to shed experienced teachers for their less-expensive colleagues,” Dooher said. “These bills also confuse the layoff process with teacher effectiveness. Make no mistake, if there’s a problem with a teacher there’s no reason for a principal to wait until a budget crisis to act.”

But Wolf, an educator for 26 years, argued the legislation was timely.

“This is a good bill,” she said, adding it was long overdue.

Olson viewed the legislation as an encouragement to school district and teacher bargaining units to begin discussions on teacher effectiveness issues.

Olson, who is not seeking reelection, expressed frustration over the perceived attitude of many lawmakers that the education policy status quo plus additional school funding is all that’s needed.

“I’m tired of hearing this,” she said. “It will sink the ship.”

A Dayton spokeswoman said the governor will consider the legislation.

Olson said they’re hopeful Dayton will sign the bill.

  • Parent

    Thank goodness – over the years my kids have had many new, young teachers, teachers who knew how to relate to them, who got them excited about learning. Unfortunately, they never lasted more than a year because of layoffs. It’s about time!

  • Flambeau

    Believe it or not this could be a significant benefit to students in the North Branch District. I doubt the school board or the administration will publicly endorse this for fear of alienating their employees but this could make a very big difference in our structural deficit issues.

    If North Branch would have been able to utilize job performance criteria rather than seniority criteria over the past five to seven years as they have been forced to cut expenses in the face of significant enrollment declines I think they could have potentially got the needed savings with very little impact on average class sizes in addition to having a higher performing work force that they currently have.

    Instead we have seen class sizes increase significantly during this time period and have been forced to lay off very talented teachers due to their lack of seniority while less talented teacher that cost more are kept on staff due to their greater seniority.

    This is the kind of reform that really can help districts like North Branch and it doesn’t require spending more money – it entails getting more for the money that we are already spending.

    I suppose some might argue that this is balancing the budget on the backs of teachers but in reality – the budget will be balanced on their backs regardless of whether this legislation is signed or not. Salaries and benefits make up 2/3rds of the district’s budget – when enrollment declines, people have to be let go in order to offset the lost revenue. There is nowhere else to get those kind of expense savings.

    The only question remaining is which people will be let go?

    Up until now the unions have made that determination and they have decided that it would be those with the least seniority that will be let go first. Not surprisingly those people also happen to make the least amount of money. As a result the district has to lay off more people to get the same cost savings than they would if they were allowed to use some other criteria such as job performance.

    This is the primary driver of North Branch’s escalating average class sizes.

    Mind you this will do little to change the district’s deficit projections. That is because the district always assumes in their budget process that they will maintain their current staff levels regardless of how much they expect enrollment to decline in the future.

    However, when it actually comes to cutting expenses to address the deficit, they should be able to cut fewer actual staff and have the discretion to be able to keep the highest performing staff regardless of seniority.

    That would be very good news for the students in the district and should really help to stem the rise in average class sizes we have seen over the past 5 to 7 years and over time result in a more engaged and higher performing staff than we would have under the current seniority rules.