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Proposal To Abolish Seniority Draws Teachers' Ire in Mass.

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One of the central tenets of unionism is under attack in Massachusetts, where Gov. William F. Weld has proposed the abolition of seniority as a factor in public-school employment.

If approved, the proposal would mark the first time any state has required school districts to ignore years of service in deciding who would be laid off during a time of economic downturn or dwindling enrollment.

It also would purge the system of so-called "bumping rights," which enable a veteran teacher or administrator to displace a more junior one.

The seniority proposal, which is part of a broader education-reform plan put forward by the Governor, is the second measure he has recommended that would materially alter the relationship between teachers and school officials. Mr. Weld has also called for discarding tenure.

But while the state teachers' union has indicated a willingness to compromise on the tenure issue, it has made clear its adamant opposition to elimination of the seniority factor.

Leaders of the Massachusetts Teachers Association say the seniority proposal has had a harmful impact on teacher morale at a time when educators in the state are already trying to cope with devastating budget cuts. Many teachers perceive the proposal as implying that they must be ineffective just because they have been teaching for a number of years, said Rosanne K. Bacon, the president of the M.T.A.

"I have never seen a politician, including the Governor, not put forth [as a reason] to elect them their experience, and yet my experience as a junior-high-school English teacher or a high-school special-needs teacher is a detriment," Ms. Bacon observed.

"If there are people who are teaching in the classroom in Massachusetts that ought not to be there, it isn't because of the union and seniority," she added. "It's because they aren't being evaluated or supervised properly."

Job Performance Stressed

Union leaders also contend that the proposal challenges an employment practice that goes well beyond teaching or even unionism in general.

"I don't know of any profession or workplace where how long you work there doesn't count for something," said Keith Geiger, the president of the National Education Association.

Analyzing the use of seniority by districts, the Weld administration found that seniority is the "defining criterion" for layoffs, recalls, and other employment decisions, according to Mafia Rodriguez, a spokesman for the executive office of education.

The administration maintains that such a system does not advance school reform. "The evaluation of job performance should be the most important criterion for employment-related decisions," Ms. Rodriguez said.

The proposal has, at least to a degree, the support of a key figure in the debate, Representative Mark Roosevelt. Co-chairman of the legislature's joint education committee, Mr. Roosevelt is one of the architects of a major education-reform package expected to be considered by lawmakers this year. (See Education Week, Dec. 11, 1991.)

Representative Roosevelt's plan calls for the recognition of seniority as one factor in employment decisions, but not the primary factor.

The Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents favors Mr. Roosevelt's plan. "We do think there is some reason to establish some equity based on abilities," said the group's executive director, Peter R. Finn.

Mr. Finn added, however, that the Governor's proposal was "extreme."

An Epidemic of Bumping?

In large part, the catalyst for the proposal has been the financial plight of Massachusetts schools. As administrative and teaching positions have been cut, many of those holding them have been able to bump other certified-staff members.

Press reports have cited such examples as a physical-education teacher displacing an award-winning mathematics teacher.

Lacking flexibility, administrators may be faced with placing a teacher who "doesn't want to be there and isn't prepared to teach," Mr. Finn said.

Union officials concede there have been a few such instances, but said they have been rare. They point out that a senior teacher can bump his or her way into a new position only if already certified to teach that subject.

Ms. Bacon cited an example from her former school, where the second ranking teacher was furloughed because he was certified to teach business math but not regular math.

Countering claims that many teachers are moving into positions for which they are unqualified, Ms. Bacon cited her own background as a more plausible scenario. She is certified to teach secondary English and social studies and K-12 special education. Before her stint as an M.T.A. officer, she taught in special education for nine years. Prior to that she taught 7th-grade English.

"I haven't lost my ability to handle 7th-grade English. I can still teach the Civil War. I haven't lost my mind somewhere in the last nine years," Ms. Bacon said, while acknowledging that it might take time before she would be as good as the person who just left the post. Mr. Geiger said that certain concessions on seniority might be made as long as it is done within the collective-bargaining agreement.

In the early 1980's, the N.E.A. chief recalled, teacher locals in Jackson and Lansing, Mich., incorporated affirmative-action language into their contracts. Under the terms of the agreement, a specified percentage of minority teachers would keep their jobs in the event of layoffs even if that meant that some more senior teachers would lose their jobs.

Last year in Boston, moreover, a federal judge ordered the school district to base its layoff decisions on affirmative-action guidelines rather than seniority. The Boston Teachers Union has opposed the idea, however.

Given the precarious financial situation in Massachusetts, Ms. Bacon said she is concerned that districts will use the measure to save money by eliminating higher-paid teachers.

Even the most well-intentioned administrators will eventually succumb to the pressure to save money by hiring less experienced, less expensive teachers, she contended.

But other analysts say school officials are unlikely to take advantage of the provision to the detriment of education quality.

"Most school administrators don't want to do foolish things," said Crystal J. Gips, an associate professor of educational leadership at Ohio University.

In all likelihood, Ms. Gips said, dropping seniority would not prove harmful to teachers unless their other protections were eliminated.

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