Teaching Profession

Tentative Milwaukee Teacher Pact Would Scale Back Seniority Rights

By Jeff Archer — January 27, 1999 2 min read

Milwaukee’s most veteran educators would no longer automatically get first dibs on open teaching posts, under a tentative labor agreement announced last week.

Leaders of the city’s 105,000-student district praised the contract language, which they said would allow schools to fill positions with the best available candidates. Currently, open spots must first be offered to a qualified teacher with the most years in the system.

Along with the district’s negotiators, the agreement has won the endorsement of the leadership of the local teachers’ union, the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association. If the school board and the union’s rank and file ratify it, staff members at each of the district’s 11 so-called Innovative Schools would be allowed to decide whether to eliminate the seniority policy. Eventually, that option would be extended to all the system’s schools.

Paulette Copeland, the president of the MTEA, said she would expect most schools to exercise that right. The change would actually empower teachers, she said, because they sit on the teams that would interview and select candidates. “This is something our members have wanted to do for quite some time,” she said.

A Sign of Change?

Observers hoped the change would speed school improvement. Although he had not read the contract language, former Milwaukee schools Superintendent Howard L. Fuller said last week that the seniority policy had been a significant impediment to reform.

“Everyone who’s interested in education reform has talked about the impact of seniority on trying to make changes in the schools,” said Mr. Fuller, now the director of the Institute for the Transformation of Learning at Milwaukee’s Marquette University. “So if they have made significant changes on how seniority is applied to assigning teachers or to transferring teachers, and to the ability of the district to address failing schools, then I would be very supportive of this contract.”

Harmony over such a key contract issue is notable in Milwaukee, where the district and its teachers’ union have traditionally found themselves at loggerheads and where the contract has been cited as a detriment to student achievement. Last week’s announcement, in fact, represents the first time in three decades that the two sides have reached a tentative agreement before the expiration of a current contract. (“Teachers’ Contract Deters Achievement, Study Says,” Oct. 1, 1997.)

“We do have a sense of cooperation, and that’s our biggest concern as we’re moving the district forward,” Ms. Copeland said. “I would say that four years ago, maybe a contract like this may not have been introduced.”

The agreement also includes a 2.25 percent pay increase for teachers in each of the next two years. In addition, union leaders and the district have agreed to eliminate the current policy requiring that no more than 30 percent of the teachers at any one school be members of a minority group. The practice is the vestige of an integration initiative instituted more than 20 years ago.

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A version of this article appeared in the January 27, 1999 edition of Education Week as Tentative Milwaukee Teacher Pact Would Scale Back Seniority Rights

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