Educators and advocacy groups across the state are eyeing a class-action lawsuit filed by dozens of laid-off Sacramento teachers who say their school district unlawfully deviated from strictly following seniority-based layoffs.
The lawsuit against the Sacramento City Unified School District is the second in two years challenging the district's decision to protect a handful of high-need campuses labeled Priority Schools from the effects of teacher turnover by skipping less senior teachers during layoffs.
Critics have argued that skipping at seven Priority Schools negatively affects students at other campuses, including schools with similar demographics as those that were protected.
The district's teachers union filed a similar suit last year. That one and the one recently filed by 56 district employees are assigned to Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Lloyd Connelly.
"I think this lawsuit will have implications on other school districts across the state," said Catherine Lhamon, director of impact litigation at Public Counsel, a Los Angeles civil rights law firm that favors districts' ability to protect certain schools from layoffs.
California law requires, in a time of budget-based layoffs, that teachers with the least experience in a school district are the first to go. There are, however, two exceptions: Districts can skip teachers to protect a student's right to an equal educational opportunity or when teachers have special training and experience necessary for a particular job.
Last year, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge William Highberger ruled the Los Angeles Unified School District could protect 45 of its lowest-performing schools from layoffs under the equal educational opportunity exemption.
Highberger ruled high turnover at those schools violated the rights of student and limited the district's ability to make improvements.
The Los Angeles Unified teachers union has challenged the decision and an appellate ruling could come any day, said Lhamon, whose firm filed the lawsuit on behalf of students at three middle schools disproportionately hit by high turnover from layoffs.
Ideally, teachers wouldn't be laid off at any schools, Lhamon said. When they can't be avoided, school districts need to acknowledge that layoffs hurt some students more than others, she said. Low-income, low-achieving schools typically have less experienced teachers, causing higher turnover during seniority-based layoffs.
Teachers call policy unfair
But Sacramento City Teachers Association President Scott Smith said skipping creates an unfair system that singles out certain groups for special treatment.
"In some cases, I think skipping is warranted, such as Waldorf (teachers). They go through extensive training.
"But, when you have a program no one can define and say it should be skipped, that's where we draw the line."
Sacramento City Unified first began skipping teachers last year at Priority Schools, a label that Superintendent Jonathan Raymond gave to seven of the district's lowest performing schools designated to be in need of transformation.
The district argued those teachers had specialized training that exempted them from seniority-based layoffs. They teach at Oak Ridge Elementary, Father Keith B. Kenny Elementary, Jedediah Smith Elementary, Will C. Wood Middle, Fern Bacon Basic Middle, Rosa Parks Middle and Hiram Johnson High.
An administrative law judge ruled last year that the district could exempt staffs at most of the Priority Schools.
A different administrative law judge ruled in April that portions of the district's argument for skipping at Priority Schools were invalid.
The district's school board went ahead and skipped teachers at all seven Priority Schools, which prompted 56 employees to file suit last month, including many teachers who would not have been laid off if not for skipping.
"My feeling is that all of our schools are high priorities," said Nicole Baradat, a laid-off teacher at the high-achieving Sutter Middle School. "By turning over entire staffs at successful schools we are doing no one a favor. We will end up with a school district of mediocre schools."
Baradat said she joined the lawsuit for one reason she wants her job back.
"I could work in Priority Schools," she said. "I have a lot to offer. Instead of laying me off, move me."
Some critics of skipping have questioned whether protecting seven schools causes harm to other campuses with similar demographics.
"I don't understand skipping," said Christopher Gosney, a teacher laid off at Rosemont High and one of the Sacramento City employees who filed suit. "I know for a fact that I'm a high-quality teacher. There are very few people that take on the responsibility that I do . Rosemont High needs to improve, like all schools, and skipping is one reason we will be held back."
S.F. board backs off plan
Raymond, the district superintendent, said seniority-based layoffs are among the issues that distract educators from doing what's best for their students.
"If the public education system had a laser-like focus on what was best for children and not what's best for adults, we wouldn't be struggling the way we are nationally," he said.
Arun Ramanathan, executive director of Education Trust-West, applauded Sacramento City Unified's decision to utilize skipping. His organization has studied the effects of seniority-based layoffs and concluded low-performing schools in poor neighborhoods are disproportionately affected because they are staffed with the least experienced teachers.
"We think purely seniority-based layoffs don't make sense," Ramanathan said.
Earlier this year, San Francisco Unified attempted to deviate from seniority-based layoffs at 14 high-needs schools labeled the Superintendent's Zone. The San Francisco Unified school board opted not to pursue the plan after an administrative law judge said skipping would have been invalid.
"Our action in February was simply about protecting our investments in some of our neediest schools it was not intended as an attack on seniority, though some have called it that," said Rachel Norton, vice president of the San Francisco school board.