Deal in L.A. Unified designed to protect 37 high-needs schools from layoffs

April 9, 2014

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The parties in a 4-year-old lawsuit challenging mass layoffs of teachers at low-income middle schools in Los Angeles Unified announced a settlement Tuesday that an attorney called a potential model for creating a stable work force in schools beset by teacher churn.

The deal in the Reed v. the State of California lawsuit will provide about $25 million annually for three years for additional administrators, mentor teachers and teacher training in 37 middle and high schools where there had been low student performance and high turnover of inexperienced teachers. The extra resources will provide a consistent corps of “highly trained teachers you can count on to be there year to year,” said Mark Rosenbaum, chief counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, which represented students filing suit. Higher teacher retention rates and specialized training, in turn, will shield both the staff and students at those schools in the event of another wave of layoffs, he said.

When filed by attorneys on behalf of students at three Los Angeles Unified middle schools in 2010, the lawsuit challenged the state law mandating teacher layoffs based on seniority. That case preceded Vergara v. the State of California, the lawsuit filed by the nonprofit group Students Matter in 2012 that targets the same statute, along with legal protections establishing teacher tenure and due-process dismissal procedures. The Los Angeles County Superior Court will rule on the Vergara lawsuit by mid-summer.

With the settlement, the Reed case ended up taking a different tack, switching from an effort to overturn the layoffs-by-seniority law to a negotiated agreement to protect vulnerable students from the existing law’s potential impact – although for less than 5 percent of the nearly 1,000 schools in the district. Plaintiffs’ lawyers in the Reed lawsuit had argued that the disproportionately high percentage of layoffs at the middle schools – 70 percent of teachers at one school – violated students’ constitutional right to an equal opportunity for an education. The layoffs created turmoil and instability, demoralized the staff and led to a staff shortage filled by substitute teachers the following year, they said.

In a landmark ruling, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge William Highberger agreed, and issued a preliminary injunction voiding the layoffs at those schools. An initial settlement in 2011 between the plaintiffs and the district expanded the number of protected schools from three to 45. But United Teachers Los Angeles challenged the agreement, and a Court of Appeal sided with the union, throwing the case back to Superior Court for further action without voiding the earlier settlement. That led to nine months of negotiations.

By providing resources to attract and retain teachers in the 37 low-performing, high-turnover middle and high schools, the settlement renders the legal question raised in Reed “academic,” said Dale Larson, an attorney with the law firm Morrison & Foerster, which, with the ACLU and the nonprofit law firm Public Counsel, brought the lawsuit. Each school will receive an additional assistant principal, another counselor, a special education coordinator and two or three mentor teachers to observe and meet with the teachers. Principals will receive a retention package to stay during the three-year period of the settlement. And staff openings at the schools will be on a priority list for early hiring. All of these resources will be in addition to money the schools will receive for high-needs students under the Local Control Funding Formula, attorneys said. The settlement is subject to approval of the district’s board of education; it will take up the issue on April 22.

Exemption for specialized training

The agreement also recognizes that the current law allows districts to exempt from seniority-based layoffs those teachers with credentials in hard-to-hire areas such as special education and those with specialized training. All teachers in the 37 schools will receive a 40-hour training. The district will bear the burden, in the event of another budget-based layoff, to establish that the training qualifies teachers for the exemption, said Jesus Quinonez, attorney for United Teachers Los Angeles. (In June 2013, a Sacramento County Superior Court judge upheld Sacramento City Unified’s right to exempt teachers from its special Priority Schools if it could prove the teachers had unique training and experience.)

Under the agreement, the approximately 160 Los Angeles Unified teachers who would have kept their jobs in 2011 if the 45 schools covered by Reed had not been exempted will get back pay and benefits, along with their seniority restored. Most of those teachers have been rehired since 2012, but some worked as substitute teachers at lower pay, Quinonez said.

In a statement, United Teachers Los Angeles said it “recognizes that the agreement for additional resources does not address all of the factors that create high-turnover schools and that all under-resourced sites deserve extra supports. But this agreement is a step in the right direction.”

Referring to the Vergara lawsuit, Quinonez said the settlement acknowledges that “the solution to high turnover in schools is not to take away teachers’ rights.”

Two of the three middle schools originally covered by the Reed lawsuit were operated by the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, a nonprofit established by former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. In a statement Tuesday, Joan Sullivan, CEO of the Partnership, said, “Today, thanks to ongoing collaboration, we have all parties coming together around a landmark settlement that promises to bring students across Los Angeles closer to the educational opportunity they deserve.”

John Fensterwald covers education policy. Contact him and follow him on Twitter @jfenster. Sign up here for a no-cost online subscription to EdSource Today for reports from the largest education reporting team in California.

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