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Teacher seniority no guarantee of job retention under bill that passes House

By Nick Longworth
Rep. Jenifer Loon discusses her bill HF1478 on the House Floor March 16. The bill, passed 71-59, would require a school board and an exclusive representative of teachers to negotiate an unrequested leave of absence plan. Photo by Paul Battaglia

Due to the fluid nature of school enrollment and funding, teachers can face unexpected layoffs.

Teachers can be recalled to available positions based on seniority, and the order in which they were placed on leave. Some contend this rehiring criteria creates a “last-in-first-out” culture that negatively impacts inexperienced — albeit talented — teachers.

Passed 71-59 by the House Thursday, HF1478, sponsored by Rep. Jenifer Loon (R-Eden Prairie), would require a school board to negotiate an unrequested leave of absence plan with teacher representatives. It would apply to all public school districts, effective July 1, 2018.

The bill now heads to the Senate where Sen. Karin Housley (R-St. Marys Point) is the sponsor.

“Virtually no districts are having locally negotiated plans other than seniority,” Loon said. “There’s no incentive to work out a plan that’s in the best interest of our students. … This preserves, respects and protects the bargaining process. It respects the roles of both the teachers and administrators in the process.”

Unrequested leaves of absence occur when a school district eliminates a position, merges classes, or faces financial or student enrollment limitations. It leaves teachers without pay or benefits.

“[Seniority is] an important factor, but it shouldn’t be the only factor,” Loon said. “There’s many factors that I think are worthy to consider.”

The bill would prohibit schools boards from using seniority as a criteria for recalling teachers from an unrequested leave of absence.

The one-sentence provision caused much contention among lawmakers.

A wealth of opponents, including many former teachers, said the provision would essentially eliminate teacher tenure as a priority, hindering loyalty to districts.

They say the tenure law is intended to protect teachers from discriminatory or retaliatory layoffs stemming from age or political affiliation.

“There’s reasons why teachers have unionized; to get these protections in the past,” Rep. John Lesch (DFL-St. Paul) said.

“We have a teacher shortage. We should be focusing on making sure our schools have the resources they need,” said House Minority Leader Melissa Hortman (DFL-Brooklyn Park). “This is just another Republican attack on protections in the workplace.”

But supporters say the provision would rectify a standard based solely on teacher seniority, not quality.

“We are not taking away seniority, we are simply removing the state default and bringing the decision to local control where it should be,” Rep. Peggy Bennett (R-Albert Lea) said.

“Let’s encourage and allow the collective bargaining process to work and develop a system that represents both what the teachers are seeking, and also what the administration would like,” Loon said.

“It’s time to change our attitude. We’re in a new time,” said Rep. Sondra Erickson (R-Princeton), who chairs the House Education Innovation Policy Committee. “There will be no repercussions to this.”

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