Former San Diego Unified Superintendent Carl Cohn once called the district’s system for filling open teaching positions “a stodgy, bureaucratic, compliance-driven, contract-focused operation,” and said, “everyone concludes that you really need to blow it up.”

Three superintendents later, the so-called post-and-bid system is still in place. And even as contract negotiations between the teachers union and the district ramp up, there’s no indication it’s going anywhere.

Under labor rules, seniority determines where teachers are placed, and whom principals can hire. When layoffs occur, or people retire, teachers can be bumped from their spots by a more senior educator.

It’s an issue that pretty much everyone has agreed is problematic. Contract negotiations are supposed to be a time to fix some of those bugs, but the district isn’t pushing too hard for many deeper reforms.

Included in the initial contract proposal the district sent the teachers union a few weeks back is a call for more flexibility in where it places teachers.

But because the details are still limited to closed-door meetings, it’s unclear whether any meaningful changes to the seniority-based transfer system are likely, or what they would look like.

How Post and Bid Works

Twice a year, schools have to post their upcoming vacancies and teachers across the district can bid on them. Within the post and bid process, principals can choose only from a pool of five candidates – the most senior teachers whose credentials match the position – regardless of whom the principal prefers.

After that first round of hiring, human resources fills remaining open spots by playing matchmaker. They find homes for excessed teachers, those coming back from leave, those who just want to switch schools and temporary teachers – in that order. At each step, seniority is given preference.

There are a few exceptions. If teachers are pushed out of their schools because enrollment dropped, they get first dibs on the open spots. And some principals whose schools face perennially low test scores and high teacher turnover have more freedom to hire any qualified candidate who applies.

This exemption was intended to make it easier to find teachers who are motivated to teach at high-poverty schools. Of course, those schools generally see fewer applicants, because they’re the places that teachers are trying to move out of, not into.

The system has made for a lot of unhappy marriages over the years. When senior teachers retire, or schools shrink due to declining enrollment, less-senior teachers can be bumped and shuffled around to fill the holes. Often, principals and teachers don’t have much say in the match.

The Coming Crush

The game of musical chairs is about to be energized as a new wave of teachers rushes out the door.

To save $8.3 million, the district recently dangled a financial carrot in front of its most senior teachers, agreeing to pay them a final year’s salary over five years if they’d head to the exits early.

The district originally said it needed at least 547 teachers to take the deal. The deadline came and went, and San Diego Unified came up about 90 teachers short. It’s moving ahead with the plan anyway, and currently projects a slightly smaller savings – $7.5 million.

Whether the district is able to tempt more senior teachers to take the deal, there’s going to be a lot of shifting to fill the vacancies.

Working Within the System

Some schools have been able to work within the seniority-based transfer system to find success.

Central Elementary in City Heights has been heralded for its ability to buck the trend: as a high poverty school, it’s been able to hang onto its teachers by fostering a culture where they want to stay.

But through a broader lens, the transfer system means that high-poverty schools are more likely to lose their teachers to schools in affluent areas. The reason is simple: For many teachers, high-poverty schools are more challenging places to teach.

Trustee Richard Barrera recently told me that the district already uses discretion in how it places teachers. For example, if a teacher has a special education or bilingual education credential, that teacher would be given preference over a more senior teacher without the credential.

Post-and-bid policies overlap with last-in-first-out layoff policies, a practice that’s currently grounded in state law and means the least senior teachers are first to go in mass layoffs.

Barrera said that these seniority-based polices may not be perfect, but that they’re the fairest options available. Replacing it could mean looking at subjective measures – like teachers’ effectiveness – which would create competition among teachers and erode trust between them and their principals.

But if the policies aren’t perfect, they could also be better. The question, in that case, is how to make that happen.

Mario Koran

Mario was formerly an investigative reporter for Voice of San Diego. He wrote about schools, children and people on the margins of San Diego.

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