It’s back-to-school time.

And this year, the roster of teachers that greet students at your neighborhood school could look notably different when the doors fly open on that first day.

San Diego Unified has laid off hundreds of teachers. Now it’s rehiring a bunch more. As Emily Alpert’s reporting has detailed over the years, the process for picking who stays, who goes and who ends up at which school can seem more Rube Goldberg than Albert Einstein.

So here’s a guide to figuring out how your kid’s teacher ended up in that classroom in the first place, and what happened to the one who was there last year.

Who Gets the Ax?

When it comes time to lay off teachers, school districts don’t cut the worst performers. State law calls for a seniority-based system, known as “last in, first out.” The most recent hires get their walking papers (with some exceptions).

That’s especially disruptive to schools in the poorest and most disadvantaged neighborhoods, since experienced teachers tend to head to more well-to-do neighborhoods and the newbies end up at the toughest schools.

Here’s an explainer of how it works:

Is This the Best Way to Do It?

Labor leaders say it’s the only fair way.

They argue that seniority is the fairest way to make a painful decision and that using layoffs as a way to oust lower-performing teachers would circumvent the existing protections for teachers against arbitrary firings.

Scott Barnett, a San Diego Unified board member, worries that the rigid approach will break up successful teams. El Cerrito’s Mann Middle School, which we featured in the explainer, just this week saw an impressive surge in its math and English test scores.

Its principal worries that half of its teachers have been laid off and will be replaced by more senior teachers bumped from other positions.

In Los Angeles, civil rights groups decided to do something about it. They sued and won a settlement with Los Angeles Unified that spares schools with high turnover and low, but growing, test scores from the seniority rules.

Why Not Here?

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The L.A. case prompted the natural question here in San Diego: Why is that not happening here? The law allows wiggle room, and one of the attorneys in the L.A. case said districts shouldn’t wait to be sued.

School board President Richard Barrera prefers to focus on avoiding layoffs altogether. School districts across the state say they fear it could be a legal mess, and few want to challenge their unions.

What Happens to the Rehired Teachers?

The district is now re-hiring 186 teachers based on the state’s optimistic financial projects. Those teachers are being selected through seniority as well.

When they re-enter the district, they get tossed into a teacher placement system that, as we highlighted in a three-part special report in late 2009, comes with major flaws.

The gist:

When the school district places teachers in front of your children, the decision may have little to do with whether they make sense for your school, whether the principal wants them or even whether they themselves want to be there.

Teachers are placed into schools through a complex and sometimes haphazard system driven by seniority and the need to find classrooms for teachers displaced when schools lose students or close. Even when principals do have a choice, their decisions are limited by factors that have nothing to do with whether a teacher is right for their school.

The stories:

Part One: The flawed teacher placement system can undercut schools from making straightforward choices on the fundamental issue of who teaches in their classrooms.

Part Two: How teachers are treated is just as critical to getting the right teachers in the right schools as the elaborate rules that can get in the way.

Part Three: New York faced similar problems. Then it overhauled its system completely.

Some schools, like charter High Tech High, are free from the rules and even get their students involved in the hiring process.

What to Look for Now

As the district prepares for the coming year, the district’s spokesman says it is working to get the same teachers in the same classroom. However, because it must place teachers by seniority, it won’t be possible to get them all back in the same spot. Stay tuned for more.

I’m the editor of VOSD. If you support the public service we provide, please consider donating. We’re a nonprofit that relies on donations. If you’d like to reach me directly, email me at or call me at 619.325.0526.

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