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Seniority-based teacher layoffs debate to reignite at Minnesota Capitol

The sun peaks from between clouds Jan. 1, 2017, to illumine the Minnesota Capitol, which will host the new legislative session beginning Tuesday, Jan. 3. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

ST. PAUL — The Minnesota House will debate legislation Thursday that could give local school leaders more control over which teachers get cut when budgets are tight or when student enrollment drops.

The legislation — Rep. Jenifer Loon, R-Eden Prairie, is its chief sponsor — aims to limit the role seniority plays when layoffs occur.

Republicans have long wanted school leaders to consider other factors when making staffing decisions, but those efforts have largely been blocked by Democrats.

Here is what to look for during Thursday afternoon's debate in the House:

The legislation requires school leaders to negotiate with their teachers unions a local plan for how a district cuts staff and what factors go into those decisions. It eliminates the current fallback language in state law that sets out a seniority-based system, also known as Last In, First Out, or LIFO, used by many districts.

Many school leaders and Republican lawmakers have long argued that the existing seniority-based layoff system that most districts use does not allow administrators to keep the most effective teachers in the classroom. They also believe it discourages new people from entering the profession because they would be at risk of losing their jobs if schools are forced to cut staff.

Many teachers believe the seniority-based layoff system is a predictable one that recognizes experience, doesn't allows educators with higher salaries to be targeted and reduces the chances of discrimination. They think improving support systems for students and teachers and increasing educator pay are better ways to attract new teachers and retain existing ones.

Both sides admit negotiating local layoff plans would be time-consuming and there is concern about a provision in the bill requiring the new plans to be in place next year. Many districts use the current fallback language in their teachers contracts so eliminating it from state law could be problematic.

Under current law district leaders already can negotiate other criteria to consider when staff cuts are necessary but it isn't required. A number of districts use this provision to include special skills such as foreign-language proficiency and special-education credentials when making staffing decisions.

Minnesota faces a growing shortage of educators in key specialties like math, science and special education. Teacher retention plays a key role in the shortage, with one in three educators leaving the field in their first five years.

Layoffs play a smaller role. At the height of the recession in 2009, 15 percent of staff reductions were due to layoffs, state data shows. In 2015, layoffs accounted for just 7 percent of staff cuts.

In past years Republicans have tried to require school districts to consider things such as teacher performance when they make staffing decisions.

Democrats opposed those requirements, arguing that effectiveness is difficult to measure and that local leaders should have control over staffing decisions.

In 2012, Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton vetoed a bill, approved by the Republican-led Legislature, that would have eliminated seniority-based layoffs. At the time, the governor said the state's newly created teacher training and evaluation system would be a better tool for making staffing decisions.

Dayton has not taken a public position on the latest proposal.

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