A somewhat surreal story out of Kanawha Country, W.Va.: Last week, according the Charleston Gazette, five first-year teachers there were gathered in a district office to pick numbers from a plastic cube. But they weren’t vying for a prize of any sort. They were drawing lots to see which one of them would be laid off.
This grim situation arose not because any of the teachers present had necessarily done poorly in their jobs but because a high school in the district had recently had to cut the position of a veteran art teacher for budgetary reasons.
Under the state’s reduction-in-force laws governing schools, the district was required to bump a junior teacher to create a new position for the more experienced educator. According to the Gazette, the law also mandates that districts use arbitrary “tiebreakers” to determine who gets the pink slip.
So the first-year teachers present at the drawing were basically just unlucky: They had all been hired on the exact same day and had positions that the art teacher (who was apparently also certified in health and physical education) could move into.
“I don’t feel like I’m in control of my career,” one of the teachers told the Gazette, adding that he felt the district was treating him like a “random person.”
The job-lottery process may sound tortorous enough in general terms, but in this case it was particularly ugly. The drawing reportedly had to be redone three times over two days because of logistical snafus—including once when there weren’t enough numbers in the cube (or, as an HR administrator speculated, two got “stuck together and nobody fessed up to it.”)
Then, this week, a new vacancy was suddenly found for the displaced art teacher, so the lottery process turned out to be moot. The teacher who had chosen the unlucky number—a high school health teacher named Cody Peters—would not lose his job after all.
“The new position was found due to a resignation which opened up the needed vacancy,” Carol Hamric, the executive director of human resources for Kanawha County Schools, said in an email.
In an interview with Education Week Teacher, Rosemary Jenkins, the West Virginia AFT affiliate’s representative for the county, said that layoff lotteries were not especially common in the state but that they did happen from time to time.
Jenkins said that, as long as the district rules out other possible openings, the union is generally supportive of the system because it’s mandated under state law. “We’ve just gotten used to it. That’s the process, so long as it’s fair,” she said.
However, the Gazette story indicates that a school-based AFT representative who was present at the drawings was upset by the irregularities of the process and suggested that he might file a grievance.
According to the Washington-based National Council on Teacher Quality, 10 states and many districts require that teachers’ seniority be considered or used as the sole factor in school layoffs. The processes for identifying teachers to be let go based on years of service vary widely, however.
Strict seniority rules—often called “last in, first out” provisions—have come under fire recently because of their disregard for matters of teacher quality and performance in school staffing. Teachers’ unions and other supporters, however, have generally held that seniority rules make layoff determinations fairer or more objective and protect teachers from capricious or personally motivated decisions.
But having the teachers themselves draw numbers out of a box? It seems like there must be a less cruel—and perhaps less blatant— approach.
Image by Flickr user Mark Menzies, under Creative Commons.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.