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Va. District's Teacher-Layoff Policy Gives Discretion to Principals

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A controversial personnel policy adopted recently by the Arlington, Va., school board that would allow principals considerable discretion in exempting certain teachers from districtwide layoffs is expected to save the jobs of some teachers at the expense of their more senior colleagues.

The Arlington policy is highly uncommon and is a departure from the practice, used in nearly all of the nation's school districts, of laying off teachers strictly according to seniority and certification, according to collective-bargaining experts with the American Federation of Teachers (aft) and the National Education Association (nea).

But, added the union officials, more school districts may adopt similar measures in an attempt to protect certain teachers with special skills, as budget cuts and declining enrollments force more layoffs in most parts of the country.

Under the new Arlington policy, principals in the 14,700-student school system will be allowed each year "to protect" one teacher for every 19 teachers on their faculty if the district is required to lay off teachers. In the past, the district has laid off teachers according to their districtwide seniority within their teaching field.

Written Justification

The principals must offer written justification to the Arlington superintendent that their choices are "essential to the operation" of their schools. The superintendent then makes recommendations on the requests to the school board, which makes the final decision on whether to exempt a teacher from the regular layoff procedure.

Under the new policy, no teacher may be "protected" at the expense of another teacher who is within five years of retirement.

Earlier this month, 120 teachers received layoff notices in Arlington, where enrollment has dropped by 25 percent over the last five years. The school board was scheduled to make its first set of decisions under the new policy last week.

Teachers under consideration for "protection" reportedly included a part-time marching-band leader, an art teacher, two librarians, and an elementary-school teacher who speaks Vietnamese.

In several cases, an acceptance by the school board of a principal's request would result in the furloughing of teachers with more seniority than those being protected, according to Marjorie S. McCreery, executive director of the Arlington Education Association (aea), which represents 90 percent of the 950 full-time teachers in the school system.

Claude M. Hilton, chairman of the Arlington school board, said the new policy was adopted to give principals greater "flexibility" in providing instructors for various academic courses and extracurricular activities. He said some principals had advocated the new policy as a way of retaining athletic coaches.

However, the Arlington teachers' organization is vigorously opposed to the new policy.

"It is fraught with the opportunity for favoritism and cronyism," said Ms. McCreery. Because teachers with seniority may be laid off under the new plan, she added, "they are now in a perpetual state of probation until they are 57 years old." Under the new policy, teachers cannot be displaced after they reach that age.

Ms. McCreery also said the new "safe-position" policy amounts to "a takeback of working conditions earned when we had collective bargaining." In 1977, the Virginia Supreme Court ruled collective bargaining by teachers to be in violation of the state's constitution and banned it. Eighteen states currently prohibit collective bargaining by teachers.

Defending his board's policy, Mr. Hilton said it is "very unlikely" that 57-year-old teachers will be laid off as a result of the new policy, and he denied that the "protection" policy would lead to principals giving "safe" positions to their friends. "We're talking about protecting activities, not personalities," he said.

Based on Seniority

Both the aft and the nea strongly oppose layoff policies that are not based strictly on seniority.

"The things that make teachers palatable to a principal are not necessarily the things that make them good teachers," said John E. Dunlop, director of negotiations for the nea.

However, Mr. Dunlop said, it is not uncommon for bargaining contracts to allow school districts to retain less-senior teachers if their absence would create shortages of teachers in specific subject areas or at specific grade levels.

But he added that he knows of no contracts in the 32 states where collective bargaining is permitted that provide such broad discretion to principals to decide which teachers will be given "safe" positions.

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