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Teacher Seniority Still a Four-Letter Word to Administration -- 'LIFO'

Last-in, first-out seniority continues to irk Christie and Cerf, administration issues survey on subject.

For all its celebration of New Jersey’s new teacher tenure law, the Christie administration hasn’t hidden its lament for the one provision it couldn’t change: seniority protection for tenured teachers in the case of layoffs.

But it hasn’t given up on building its case.

In an unusual request, the state Department of Education last week sent a short survey to every district and charter school asking them about their layoffs of teachers -- technically called “reductions in force” (RIFs) -- over the past five years, and about the impact of seniority protection on their “ability to manage their personnel.”

The survey will “help us determine how prevalent RIFs are, who they are affecting, and how they impact retention of effective educators,” read the memo from Peter Shulman, the state’s assistant education commissioner.

“Data gained from this survey will help us better define State efforts around recruitment and retention,” he wrote.

State Education Commissioner Chris Cerf said this weekend that there wasn’t any specific agenda to the survey, only a wish to gain some hard information as to how the seniority protections affect districts.

“The empirical question I had was how consequential is this in terms of its practical impact on districts,” Cerf said. “We know about it in the abstract, but how does it have real consequences?”

The primary question in the survey asks districts and charter to rate how much the seniority rule reduces -- or increases -- the district’s management flexibility.

Cerf’s said he knows it is a big obstacle for the administrations of large school systems such as Newark, where dropping enrollments have left hundreds of teachers identified as excess but few mechanisms to let them go.

He was less sure for smaller ones, although he added that tightening state and local budgets signal the future possibility of reduced staffing for them as well.

“Right now, it may be a huge impact on a relatively select number of districts,” he said.

Under previous and current state law, districts laying off tenured teachers must do so in order of seniority, a practice known as “last in, first out,” or LIFO.

LIFO had been in the crosshairs of Gov. Chris Christie and some legislators involved in crafting the new tenure law, which for the first time directly links gaining tenure to positive job evaluations.

But in the negotiations and compromises that led to the unanimous passage of the bill, the seniority provisions survived.

Christie has since said that was his one regret about the new law, although he has taken a conciliatory tone of late, saying he understood he couldn’t get everything he wanted.

The teachers unions that helped put together the new tenure law have said that ending of LIFO was a line that they would not cross. The chief sponsor of the measure, state Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), said she was unlikely to see the bill passed without the unions’ support.

This weekend, Cerf said there were no immediate plans for revisiting the topic in new legislation to end LIFO. He said the results of the survey would help determine how big a priority it should be for the administration.

Still, he didn’t rule it out.

“Obviously the timing would be up to the governor’s office,” Cerf said. “But I don’t think any of us have retreated from the idea.”

The loosening of the seniority provision would have some support from districts, to be sure, although one of their top lobbyists said the timing may be difficult in the coming year when the governor and the entire Legislature are up for election.

"We have always felt that districts should be able to keep the best teachers, regardless of seniority," said Mike Vrancik, chief lobbyist for the New Jersey School Boards Association.

"In an election year, it might be very difficult to achieve," he added.

It's almost as certain that the teachers unions aren't likely to go along this time, either.

"It is no secret that the administration wants to eliminate the seniority rights of veteran teachers in New Jersey, and this survey would appear to assist in advancing that agenda," said Steve Wollmer, communications director of the New Jersey Education Association.

"Our veteran teachers have helped build what is arguably the best public school system in the nation, so this agenda makes no educational sense," he said. "It's a political agenda, not an educational one."

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