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Class sizes will balloon all over the city if San Diego Unified goes ahead with plans to slash one out of every six teachers. But the blizzard of pink slips is hitting some of its poorest schools the hardest because the newest teachers are the first to lose their jobs — a phenomenon dubbed “last-in-first-out.”

That has happened over and over in San Diego. Yet just two hours to the north in Los Angeles, the practice is being curbed.

Civil rights groups sued Los Angeles Unified and came to an unusual settlement: Schools with high turnover and low but growing scores will be spared when it hands out pink slips. That means that more senior teachers at less troubled schools will go onto the chopping block instead, upsetting the seniority-based system that drives layoffs at most public schools.

San Diego Unified hasn’t followed the lead from Los Angeles, at least not yet. It hasn’t taken any steps to dampen the impact of pink slips on poorer schools. And it hasn’t had to grapple with a lawsuit pushing them to do so.

“Why isn’t that happening here?” asked Fernando Hernandez, principal of Perkins, a K-8 school in Barrio Logan that could replace nearly a third of its teachers if layoffs go through. “I don’t think it’s fair.”

The Los Angeles case has been greeted as a gamechanger, but school districts across the state fear it could be a legal minefield. Few are reluctant to pick new fights with their unions. School board President Richard Barrera said the solution is just to stop the layoffs entirely.

“Any solution other than that is going to put the district in court one way or another,” Barrera said.

The Los Angeles deal depends on wiggle room in California law: While schools are supposed to let go of their newest teachers first, they can skip over teachers who are highly needed or hold rare credentials. San Diego Unified is already doing that for a select group of science and special education teachers.

Districts can also deviate from last-in-first-out layoffs to ensure kids have equal rights under the state constitution. Civil rights groups argued in Los Angeles that students in schools that were battered by layoffs and already wracked by teacher turnover were unfairly deprived of their right to an education. They say the law already allows districts to skip over selected schools to protect them from layoffs.

“They shouldn’t wait to be sued,” said Catherine Lhamon, director of impact litigation for Public Counsel, one of the groups that sued Los Angeles Unified. “They can take that action today.”

The case is still being appealed by the teachers union in Los Angeles, which argued it didn’t address the root causes of turnover and called it irresponsible to send veteran teachers at other schools packing. But courts have agreed to let the school district go ahead and avoid layoffs at some of its neediest schools.

In Los Angeles, attorneys pointed to the devastating effects on a select group of schools — something that San Diego Unified argues it would need to analyze before it could try to skip over specific schools or teachers for equity. Los Angeles Unified had a different situation, they say, because it had already undergone a round of layoffs and could show their effects.

“It’s not something that we’re ignoring,” said Andra Donovan, the interim attorney for San Diego Unified. “But it’s not as simple as saying, ‘This school loses a certain percentage of teachers.’ You have to look specifically at how it’s going to impact a school.” That’s harder because the district hasn’t gone through with layoffs in the past few years.

Lhamon argues that history or no history, school districts can point to the predictable results of last-in-first-out layoffs. But she and other legal experts knew of no other school systems that had done it. That has made school districts uneasy about being the first to test the waters.

It is unclear yet who, if anyone, would challenge San Diego Unified on last-in-first-out. The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California was one of the groups that lodged the Los Angeles case; the local chapter of the ACLU isn’t raring for a lawsuit and wants to let the school district find other solutions short of litigation. The local chapter of the NAACP is just beginning to explore the issue.

“I have to look and see how they did it in Los Angeles,” said Lei-Chala Wilson, president of the San Diego branch office of the NAACP. “But it’s something the NAACP is willing to do. We’re on it.”

Even though layoff warnings have already been sent, San Diego Unified could still take steps to spread the pain more evenly. But it could only do so if it lessens the predicted layoffs in the first place.

School districts have to hold hearings where the teachers union can argue for technical reasons to overturn layoffs. San Diego Unified could ask a judge at that hearing to let them skip over some or all of the teachers at certain schools. But it couldn’t add new teachers to its layoff list to replace them. Lhamon said if the school district cancels any layoffs, it could choose to save specific schools first.

Many teachers say the real problem is laying off teachers at all. They argue that Californians need to restore school funding by extending existing taxes or adding an oil tax. Labor leaders say seniority is a fair way to handle the pain.

“The real conversation is why is this happening, period,” said Camille Zombro, vice president of the teachers union. “To tinker with how layoffs happen really misses the point.”

If all the warnings of layoffs become real layoffs, Fay Elementary in City Heights would have to replace almost all of its teachers. The same school was also threatened with losing nearly all of its teachers three years ago.

While it faces the same challenges as many disadvantaged schools — students poor enough to get free lunches, most learning English, some refugees — Fay is hardly your stereotypical school of green teachers. Most of its teachers have worked there for eight years, which shows just how deep the proposed cuts could go.

“We could have jumped ship a long time ago. None of us did that,” said Amy Carbonne, who teaches kindergarten. “That’s why this is so frustrating.”

Old students return to ask former teachers for help on college applications. Teachers know brothers and sisters and aunts, have been to baby showers and birthday parties. When one teacher is flummoxed with how to help a kid, she can easily turn to other teachers who taught the same child before. Its scores have steadily grown, something teachers chalk up to the trust they’ve built with each other.

“They have that fire, that enthusiasm. I envy that,” said Maria Muñoz, a Fay resource teacher who didn’t get a pink slip. Despite their dilemma, she believes seniority is still the fairest way to handle the layoffs. “But maybe the school board could make a special case.”

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5665 and follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/emilyschoolsyou.

Emily Alpert

Emily Alpert was formerly the education reporter for Voice of San Diego.

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