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Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Seniority determines who gets pink slips in Nashua school system

When Nashua school administrators need to hand out pink slips, it is seniority, not performance, that determines which teachers will lose their jobs.

The process, outlined in the Nashua teachers contract, requires teachers who have been in the district for less than three years to be fired before any teachers with more than three years experience.

While this is standard language found in public employee contracts, some school officials say such “last in, first out” policies are counterintuitive to keeping the best teachers in the classroom.

However, union advocates argue it is the only fair way to determine which teachers lose their jobs in tough times. Robert Sherman, president of the Nashua Teachers Union, said the system provides enough flexibility for the district to make good decisions about staffing.

“It’s an effort to make sure we have seasoned teachers in the school system, as opposed to untested and maybe undedicated newer personnel that are just trying this out,” Sherman said.

This “last in, first out” process may become a reality for many Nashua teachers this spring, as the city waits to hear from Concord on anticipated cuts in revenue for next year’s budget. The district has until May 13 to let teachers know whether they will be brought back next year.

Nashua Superintendent Mark Conrad said having more flexibility to weigh performance with seniority would lead to better staffing decisions.

“The more flexibility we have, the more we can move toward decisions that better impact students,” he said.

Layoffs are never easy, Conrad said, but losing quality educators has a long-lasting impact.

“In addition to the human toll, the most difficult part is watching some excellent teachers move out the door because you had to make that decision,” Conrad said.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said the push to eliminate seniority is nothing more than a ploy being use to divide new teachers and older teachers.

“People who want to scrap seniority want to essentially put in its place a system where a principal makes a decision based on who he or she likes or who is more expensive,” Weingarten said.

Experience is the only objective measure that can be used to avoid corruption and cronyism, Weingarten said.

Nashua Board of Education President Robert Hallowell agreed that it shouldn’t be just one person making decisions about hiring. However, he suggested introducing a peer review board to become part of the teacher evaluation process.

The contract gives the district some flexibility but only among non-tenured teachers who have worked in the district for less than three years. Essentially, all non-tenured teachers are treated as equals, meaning the district could decide to lay off a second-year teacher as opposed to a first-year teacher.

Once teachers reach tenure after third year, the reduction in force process must go by ascending seniority in the department where reductions are being made.

There is a clause in the contract that gives administration the authority to let go of a more senior tenured teacher if it’s determined that teacher is “significantly inferior” to less experienced tenured colleagues. That would mean administration would have to prove that through evaluations and documentation. Conrad said that is seldom used because layoffs don’t typically go so deep as to affect tenured teachers.

Wrapped in the seniority discussion is the issue of tenure. Weingarten said while she agrees the tenure process can be cumbersome and unwieldy, completely eliminating it would be to take away the due process rights teachers have earned.

“The folks who want to eliminate tenure completely just want top-down management,” Weingarten said. “They don’t want teachers to have a voice.”

New Hampshire law grants teachers tenure after three years. Before that, teachers can be let go without any reason. After the three-year period, teachers have the right to challenge termination, first with the local school board and then the state Board of Education.

The New Hampshire Senate last week passed legislation that requires teachers to work five years before being granted tenure.

Getting rid of tenure would stop teachers from taking chances on new and innovative lessons that may not work for fear of losing their job, Weingarten said. She disputed that it is a “job for life” and said the union is working with districts to make sure there are procedures in place to get rid of bad teachers.

The Nashua teachers contract has a clear outline for steps to dismiss tenured teachers for poor performance, but it appears to be seldom used. There is currently one Nashua teacher on a plan for remediation, according to the district. A plan for remediation is the final step for helping veteran teachers turn things around before they can be let go for cause.

Michael Brindley can be reached at 594-6426 or mbrindley@nashuatelegraph.com.