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A San Diego Unified school board member is floating a controversial plan to deviate from rehiring teachers chiefly based on seniority.

School board member Scott Barnett hopes to keep the same teachers at the same schools, saying that if teachers are hired mainly on seniority some successful teaching teams could be broken up at disadvantaged schools.

“The threat posed to ‘high poverty, high-need students’ by disassembling these academic teams creates a clear and present danger to the success of these students,” Barnett wrote in a memo to the board.

Under California law, teachers are usually laid off and rehired based on how long they have worked in the school district. The least experienced teachers lose their jobs, and those with the most experience get them back.

That usually causes more turnover and disruption at the most disadvantaged schools, which tend to have newer teachers than schools in more affluent areas.

But there are some exceptions to the rules. Schools can skip over teachers who are highly needed or hold rare credentials. They can also deviate from last-in-first-out layoffs to ensure kids have equal rights under the state constitution.

Barnett’s idea sparked anger from the teachers union, which argued it was illegal and “designed to take swipes at our core union rights.” Union President Bill Freeman said that the real problem was that the school district is holding off on rehiring all the teachers in grades K-3 who were laid off.

Los Angeles Unified skipped some of its neediest schools after civil rights groups sued the school district. That put more senior teachers at other schools on the chopping block. Teachers unions argue that only hurts other schools and say seniority is the fairest way to handle the painful process.

San Diego Unified has steered clear of any similar plans to skip needy schools. But it took a step that would seemingly have stopped the problem in the first place: It decided to keep classes for its smallest students from ballooning in size next year, sparing roughly 300 jobs for teachers.

Yet so far, it has only rehired 86 teachers who were laid off. The school district says before it rehires any more, it is trying to place teachers who were displaced from other schools but not laid off. That kind of displacement happens when student enrollment drops at schools, causing them to need fewer teachers.

Rehiring the most senior teachers first can stop the same teachers from going back to the same schools. For instance, if a fourth grade teacher who was laid off because of dropping enrollment has spent more time in the school district than a third grade teacher who was laid off because of growing class sizes, that fourth grade teacher could be rehired to take the job the third grade teacher used to hold.

Freeman argued that the larger problem that is disrupting teams of teachers is not seniority, but that the school district is trying to plug displaced teachers into the holes that were left by inflating class sizes. If all of the K-3 teachers were rehired, he said, they could go back to the schools they came from.

An email from the union to teachers also argued that it was illegal for San Diego Unified to use different criteria to cancel layoffs than they used when they issued the layoffs in the first place.

We explained the seniority-based system, known as “last in, first out” in this San Diego Explained with NBC7 San Diego:

The school board will vote on the idea this afternoon. It looks like it will be a lengthy meeting: The board is also voting on whether to shutter an embattled charter school, choosing which charter will get a spot in the planned downtown library, hashing out the first steps toward closing schools, and giving the superintendent his report card, among a long list of other issues.

Emily Alpert is the education reporter for voiceofsandiego.org. What should she write about next? Please contact her directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org.

Emily Alpert

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

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