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LIFO surprise: With contentious ‘last in, first out’ suddenly gone from statute, where are teacher layoff policies headed?

State Rep. Jenifer Loon
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
State Rep. Jenifer Loon, far right, authored the bill removing LIFO as the default policy in state statute.

While debates over teacher licensure reforms, school funding and failed pseudo voucher bills dominated the education agenda at the Capitol this year, a pretty significant policy measure passed without much commotion: the “last in, first out” layoff policy, commonly known as LIFO, is no longer written into state statute as the default for districts and union leaders who can’t reach an agreement during negotiations on how layoffs should otherwise be handled.

The LIFO policy is pretty self-explanatory. “Literally, the last person hired is the first person to go, regardless of their effectiveness in working with students,” explains Gary Amoroso, executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators.

Even if it didn’t take center stage this year, the debate over how much of a role seniority should play in determining teacher layoffs is contentious and longstanding. Teachers unions and many DFL lawmakers contend LIFO is a safeguard for tenured teachers who advocate for their students and shouldn’t have to worry about retaliation from administration. They also view it as a way to ensure that senior teachers who have moved up the payscale aren’t cut, come budget crunches, simply because a district could hire or retain newer teachers for a fraction of the cost.

On the other hand, a number of Republican lawmakers, school district officials and education reform folks — joined by the Star Tribune editorial board, which wrote an editorial opposing LIFO in March — insist that a layoff system that doesn’t take things like teacher quality into account actually hurts schools and students, especially students of color. That’s because the least experienced teachers tend to be working in schools with higher concentrations of minority and low-income students. During a round of LIFO-based layoffs, these teachers are laid off first; and since they make the least amount of money that may mean laying off more teachers.

Given all of the bipartisan work that took place this session to address the teacher shortage in subject areas like English as a Second Language, special education and career and technical education, along with the push to diversify the teacher corps, the details of a layoff policy may seem inconsequential. But, in reality, schools are still facing budgetary hardships and issuing pink slips for a number of reasons, whether it’s tied to declining enrollment, programmatic changes or some other factor. And while it's safe to say that nobody wants layoffs to occur, districts and unions still need to have layoff policies in place.

The big difference, moving forward, is that the power dynamics between the two parties at the negotiating table are now a bit more even. In theory, districts always had the opportunity to negotiate something different from a LIFO-only policy. But when the unions’ preferred option was already established as the fallback in state statute, they had little to no incentive to entertain alternative proposals, opponents of the policy say.

“Now that that default is gone, it will require more meaningful conversation around reforms and the ULA [Unrequested Leave of Absence] process,” said Kirk Schneidawind, executive director of the Minnesota School Boards Association. “Hopefully the boards and school reps of teachers will look at this as an opportunity to strengthen our teaching profession, as well as our school districts.”

‘It was a big surprise’

The chair of the House Education Finance Committee, Rep. Jenifer Loon, R-Eden Prairie, authored the bill removing LIFO as the default policy in state statute. It’ll go into effect at the start of 2019, a delay that’ll give districts and unions a bit of a cushion to figure out how they want to approach this piece of their contract during the next bargaining cycle.

Kirk Schneidawind
Kirk Schneidawind

Now completing her fifth term in the Legislature, Loon says she’s been working on this piece of legislation since her second term and is “still kind of pinching” herself that it passed this year. It’s gone through various iterations, including a more prescriptive attempt to tie layoff policies to the new teacher evaluation systems that districts and their respective teachers unions recently adopted. This year, the bill coming out of the House was straightforward: Simply, there is no more default layoff policy.

“I’ve had a lot of districts that have come to me and said they’d really like to see this change,” Loon said. ‘There hasn’t really been any interest or willingness, on the part of the teachers bargaining unit, to work on something different than seniority and now they’ll have to. I think we’ll see how well everyone comes to the table in the spirit of starting with a blank piece of paper.”

She’s under no illusion that districts will suddenly look to cast away seniority as a factor in shaping layoff policies. But she’d like to see it coupled with some other factors, rather than serving as the sole criterion, she says. That could help prevent putting schools in a situation where, when faced with having to reduce personal costs, they are forced to cut standout teachers who haven’t yet accrued tenure.

An example

Just this spring, for instance, a former state teacher of the year, Tom Rademacher, found himself in this predicament because he’d moved back to the school he’d previously taught at for six years and was back at the bottom of the pecking order, as far as seniority goes, when layoffs happened this year. While Rademacher has been public about not wanting to be dubbed the poster child of the anti-LIFO campaign — because he’d rather see changes made so no good teachers have to be let go — it’s the sort of thing that really casts LIFO-only policies into question.

“I’m hoping this will be another tool or another strategy of saying, ‘You know, maybe we’re gonna start looking at our newer teachers and the ones who are just hitting it out of the park, and there should be some protections for folks if we have to do layoffs,’” Loon said.  

Asked why the removal of LIFO ended up passing this year, she says it’s still unclear what changed Gov. Mark Dayton’s mind. He’s vetoed similar legislation in the past, but told media he’d be more willing to support a LIFO repeal once the new teacher evaluation system was in place.

Denise Specht, president of Education Minnesota, the state teachers union, says it’s long been a priority for House Republicans, but she wasn’t expecting to see any movement on this issue this year.

“You didn’t see from us anything around it because we thought it really wasn’t going to be part of the final package. And it was a big surprise,” she said.

In a press release sent out during the special session she asserted that the removal of this state statute doesn’t necessarily mean things should, or will, change at the local level. “There’s nothing in this bill preventing districts from carrying existing polices forward, and we expect most districts will do so,” Specht said in the press release.

Denise Specht
Denise Specht

Moving forward, she says she’ll be advising local teachers unions to ensure that any modified layoff policies that may take things other than seniority into consideration are not arbitrary or discriminatory against teachers who are doing things like “speaking truth to power, speaking up about services that students aren’t receiving at their schools, or giving an honest grade to a student who might be an influential member of the community.”

She has concerns about how teachers issued a Tier 1 license under the new licensure system — the lowest rung of licensure that will encompass teachers without any formal teaching background — will not be subject to the newly bargained layoff policies. But she’s even more concerned with how the LIFO repeal could, in her estimate, exacerbate the current teacher shortage. Studies in other states — like Louisiana and Illinois — have shown that a lack of tenure or job security has resulted in teachers leaving the profession — teachers of color, in particular — she said.  

It’s too early to tell what sort of an impact the state-level LIFO repeal will actually have on schools. But Specht suspects there’s not much of an appetite, on the local level, to use anything other than seniority.

“There are some locals that are probably going to just put seniority in their contract because it’s easy, it’s predictable,” she said. “We actually hear that a lot of superintendents and principals like it because sometimes having those tough conversations, it’s hard for them. We also believe that teacher development and evaluation law might play into this.”

Looking beyond seniority

While people on both sides of the LIFO debate seem to agree that seniority will continue to play a predominant role in local layoff policies, some believe the repeal of LIFO will, in fact, inspire some more creative layoff policy negotiations.

Josh Crosson, senior policy director with the education reform group EdAllies, says he and his colleagues have done a lot of research on layoff policies and haven’t found a single district that uses something other than “last in, first out” for determining teacher layoffs. Some districts tinker around the edges. For instance,  if two teachers are hired at the same time and one needs to get cut, they might do a coin flip to see who gets to stay in the classroom, Crosson explained, citing a 2015 investigative story by Ricardo Lopez in the Star Tribune.

Nationally, Minnesota is joining the ranks of a handful of other states that leave layoff policies completely up to the discretion of local districts. According to a 2015 state analysis conducted by the National Council on Teacher Quality, 19 states currently fall into this category. Another 19 allow seniority to be considered with other factors, 10 require seniority to be considered, and three states prohibit seniority from being a factor altogether. A closer look at how layoff policies are crafted in 35 large districts in the 19 states that leave layoff decisions at the district level shows that 19 use seniority as the sole or primary criterion. Only 14 percent use performance as the sole or primary criterion.  

“My guess would be that even though it’s no longer in state law, the status quo is still going to be the default unless there’s a specific effort to change it. And that is a battle that can often require a lot of political capital on the side of the district,” said Kency Nittler with the National Council on Teacher Quality.

Even so, she says that the repeal of LIFO legislation in Minnesota opens up a number of new possibilities for districts to factor criteria other than seniority into their layoff policies. For instance, some districts might look to negotiate a system that buckets teachers into groups based on their performance-evaluation ratings. Those with the lowest level of ratings may be let go first. From there, any additional cuts might be based on seniority. In some policies she’s observed, districts have adopted a point system where teachers can get points for their performance evaluation. This portion often carries the most weight, but they can also get points for things like experience, leadership roles, or other measures of professional growth.

“I think there are ways to make systems that are not purely 100 percent based on performance that are certainly much less quality blind than 'last in, first out,' but are perhaps palatable for the negotiating table,” Nittler said.

Schneidawind says he’s already been fielding inquiries from school board members who are looking for guidance. He predicts some districts will start having conversations around factoring teacher evaluation into the process. Some have already negotiated a modified seniority list, he added.

But now that districts and unions will be required to have a conversation about this, perhaps more districts will consider ways to prioritize holding on to teachers with certain qualifications during layoffs, like those who hold multiple licenses, for instance.

Loon suspects any new priorities that emerge will look very different from district to district. Perhaps a district that’s really invested in offering concurrent enrollment courses will take into account those who have the postsecondary credentials required to teach these courses. Or districts that have invested in a grow-your-own program, to help paraprofessionals and other nonlicensed staff become licensed teachers, might look to add special provisions to their layoff process.

What Osseo Area Schools did

The Osseo Area Schools serves as a good example of what this could look like. In their current teacher contract, they pushed for and secured a buffer for those who complete their grow-your-own program. Once these teachers have completed their student teaching in the Osseo district and coursework through Metropolitan State University, and obtained their teaching license and continuing contract status with the district, they are awarded up to two additional years of seniority.

Judy McDonald, executive director of human resources for the district, says they’ve viewed the default LIFO-only policy as an obstacle to recruiting and retaining a high quality and diverse workforce.  

“We are absolutely always interested in negotiating something so that we put the best teachers in front of our kids and that we have more autonomy determining who the best teacher is other than seniority and using multiple variables, if that is possible,” she said. “So we certainly have a strong interest in negotiating. And I’m sure Education Minnesota has a lot of strong interests as well, so it’s going to be a matter of putting our interests on the table and seeing if there’s a way to reach some kind of middle ground.”

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Comments (19)

What is appropriate to consider other than seniority?

Level of preparation. More graduate degrees and credits, and those who achieve National Certification.
Teaching awards.
Effectiveness of classroom management.
Measurable things that demonstrate teacher knowledge, innovation and classroom discipline.

Not pay level, a surrogate for age. Age discrimination is illegal.
Not one year's poor performance review, after many years of good ones.
Not individual parent complaints.
No undocumented critical comments from a principal with a vendetta.
No criticism meant to stifle academic freedom.

Pay and Age

Is your comment meant to indicate that older employees who do the same job with the same level of responsibility at the same performance level should be paid more because they have been doing it longer?

I guess my view is that people should be paid based on the value they offer today. This means that seniority, degrees, etc are just tools to support people being prejudiced against young gifted hard working employees.

Thoughts?

Older employees

Will be at a competitive disadvantage to younger folks, who can be more flexible in accepting lesser wages and benefits. They may not have yet started families, their health will be less of a concern, they might have less a concern with a need for housing and transportation. In short, all you propose is a race to the bottom, with those willing and able to accept the least being the winners, just like every conservative, free market, scheme.

Please clarify

Are you saying we should pay based on age and family need, and not based on capability, performance, results what is best for the kids, etc?

Please also remember that if the employees make 10% more it means we can hire ~10% fewer of them for the same funding / taxes. There is a balance between wages and class sizes that needs to be considered.

No

I'm saying that instead of selecting for quality, as you seem to prefer, all that will be selected for is cost. Or are you trying to suggest that ONLY younger teachers will possess the vital skills you so seem to desire? It's not difficult, you seem to still labor under the delusion that a public entity can and should be operated like a private one. If that's the case, let me know when I get to vote on your project list, your supervisor, and whether or not you get funding to stay in business...

Parent Student Feedback

After decades in public schools as a parent, I have always been fascinated that they do not have teacher / class evaluation forms for the Parents to complete.

This is a staple of every college and professional course I have ever taken. The management of these programs are starving for feedback regarding the instructor, curriculum, classroom, materials, etc to ensure they are satisfying the customers. And yet for some reason this does not occur in public schools. Thoughts?

Management

Why is it that so many people seem think that the School Board, Superintendent and Principals are out to ruin the schools and children they are responsible for?

I keep thinking that these leaders are elected and hired by the voters to ensure the schools succeed in teaching the children of the community. And yet it seems that "power to the teachers" folks want to ensure that the voter's and Leader's plans and efforts can be stalled by the teachers.

Now I agree that unwarranted retaliation over petty reasons should not be tolerated, however when the voters / leaders say that the ship is headed East.... We need everyone on that ship rowing East... And if individuals want to go West, they should probably jump ship and get on one headed that way.

Perf Plan and Reviews

From my understanding performance planning and reviews are a rather rare occurrence for tenured teachers. (ie not yearly with quarterly updates) Is this correct or not?

LIFO .....

Undoubtly has made the profession what it is. It is difficult enough to keep a teacher in the profession. This will surely undermine the profession even more. But that is the intent,isn't it. Who wants the worker to have rights when we all know it is managers and administrators who do the real work of education. The idea behind public education has been nearly totally lost. If the people who ended lifo were sincere salaries would have skyrocketed. Did they ? No they did not. It is a ruse.

Why

Why do you believe that salaries would sky rocket?

I mean if the Public Schools ever do get to a market based employment and compensation system, the teachers who take the most challenging positions and perform well there would make the most money.

Where as the system today rewards people who get degrees and stay in the district... And it also let's these highest paid teachers work their way into the easiest jobs in the easiest schools....

I am not sure how people can defend the current system that ensures that the kids who need the most help get the newest teachers who are paid the least and most likely to get laid off. If you doubt me, please see this Minnpost piece.

https://www.minnpost.com/learning-curve/2014/03/mps-data-teachers-raise-...

Undermine

Please help me understand... Why would Voters, a School Board, a Superintendent and Principals want to undermine and cause their school / teachers / children to fail?

This seems to be a common theme from the "power to the teachers" folks.

- The Teachers are the good wise self sacrificing folks.

- The Voters, School Board, Superintendent and Administrators are self centered power hungry harmful folks.

What is the rationale for this?

Same as anything else

Ideological agendas. Or are you claiming that folks pushing to put God back in the classroom, remove sex ed and the teaching of evolution, pushing American exceptionalist history, smothering climate change education, and looking to cripple educator's union protections are only getting elected and hired because they're such nice folks. Conservatives figured out that if they can't hook 'em young, before they've been educated, people tend to not like their proposals. It's all just politics and power.

School Boards

It is strange because my Robinsdale school board is usually full of pretty liberal reps. They seem absolutely dedicated to our schools and the kids in them.

What district are you in that has these Conservative board members who want their school to fail the kids?

Any one

Outside a metro area.

It's complicated

I spent 30 years in a school district that used LIFO as a major, but not the only, criteria for determining layoffs on those occasions when they became necessary. We used a point system (I’d guess there are other equitable ways to do this) that allotted points for years of service, extracurricular duties taken on, classroom management, based on observation, other extra-classroom responsibilities taken on (e.g., formal curriculum revision work), and a couple other categories I can no longer remember. In essence your chances of surviving the round of layoffs were much improved if you could demonstrate that your commitment to the school and its students went beyond the 8:30 to 3 school day.

I’ve never been a fan of LIFO as the ONLY criteria used to determine who should be laid off – or the euphemistic “ULA” – but most of the arguments used against considering seniority are right-wing sophistry. Virtually every other field of endeavor values experience, so when Republican legislators, who themselves are usually hoping to acquire some of the same sort of experience they’re busily denigrating, toss it aside as a job-holding criteria, we’re looking at a witch hunt, not a serious quest for more effective instruction. Seniority absolutely should be a primary consideration for determining whether or not a teacher’s contract should be renewed, but I’d also argue that it should not be the only criteria used.

Tom Rademacher’s case DOES cast LIFO-only policies into question, and with good reason. I also sympathize with Rademacher’s desire not to be used as a poster child for anti-tenure propaganda. Frankly, the very idea that someone who was Minnesota’s “teacher of the year” would find himself a victim of a slavish insistence on LIFO-only policy regarding layoffs is itself a strong indicator that not just LIFO, but the whole fragmented system could stand some critical review.

For what it’s worth, and I’m long retired from the classroom, so I don’t have a personal stake in this, I’d argue that tenure should continue, and even be strengthened, but that it should be state-wide and granted, and not limited to a local school district. Unlike the private sector, and in many instances, the public sector as well, teachers have almost no ability to change jobs (i.e., transfer their skills) to improve their career or, in a society where money is usually the primary criteria, to improve their personal financial situation. Moving from District A, which offers them “x” dollars, to District B, which would offer them “y” dollars, typically entails serious, sometimes disastrous financial consequences because, when starting at a new school district, they’re forced to literally start over, as if they had no teaching experience or demonstrated skills. It’s preposterous, presumptuous in the extreme, I’d argue, for the administrators and school board of District B to hire an experienced, tenured teacher with the assumption that that teacher must, once again, prove that s/he knows what s/he is doing in front of a classroom.

No sane business operates this way. You don’t hire a new executive for your company and then tell him or her that s/he’ll have to spend the next 3 years as a shipping clerk, or on the assembly line, to prove that they have some minimal job-related skills when they’ve already demonstrated, with a previous employer, that they have those skills. In fact, the reason you’re hiring that person is because they’ve demonstrated so convincingly that they have those skills that you or your board have decided to offer them the position. Pretending that experience has no value in education, when it’s highly valued in every other field of human endeavor, is a common and misplaced article of faith among those who like to be called “conservative.”

Silver Handcuffs

I call tenure, steps/lanes, LIFO, etc the silver hand cuffs... And ironically they were forged by the Teacher's Union and put on voluntarily by most Teachers.

The Teacher's willingness to be judged by years in district and degree level to be put in a little box on the steps/lanes table amazes me. And all to ensure they get consistent raises, higher job security and higher than justified wages later in their career.

And to get these benefits they had to give up the freedom to be measured as individuals, and to change positions whenever they got tired of their job, school, school district, etc.

See, sane businesses evaluate each potential employee based on their personal qualifications and what people in the market are paying for certain positions. And if the person has the correct qualifications and experience, the company pays the correct amount. And then they terminate employment if things don't work out.

And sane employs evaluates each company and position based on the reputation of the company, the interview with a potential supervisor, compensation offered, position offered, etc. And then they move to another job if it does not work out.

It is insane that our schools classify employees by seniority and degrees to figure out how qualified and productive they are and how much to pay them. Imagine if you needed to have your shingles replaced and the guild representative insisted that you need to pay the one roofing crew twice as much because the employees were older... Not because they were better, faster, had better customer reviews, etc. It makes NO Sense... :-)

It's not complicated, but it is misunderstood.

We are not all sure what factors are associated with better teachers; identifying which of two teachers is better is not as simple as people think, including teacher awards further training, or performance evaluations. Some teachers work better for specific students. So, evaluation methods are based more on intuition and ideology than more objective measures. The basis for firing an experienced teacher is likely to be factors unrelated to their teaching performance (like their salary or their personality). One wonders why this is a major issue for teachers but not so for police, firemen, etc. The real truth is that differences in competent teachers have little association with differences in student performance, so the focus on this issue is unlikely to have any affect on educational quality or student learning. Political ideology is the basis of this concern.

Competent

"The real truth is that differences in competent teachers have little association with differences in student performance,"

How do you measure competent?

I have had 3 daughters in various schools for the last 18 years, so if all of the 50+ Teachers that I have met with in these schools are classified as "competent" since they are Union members and still employed... I guess I disagree with you whole heartedly.

We have had everyone from organized good communicators who are emotionally stable and can keep control of their classroom to the total opposite. One started to have a breakdown and began discussing suicide in front of the middle school math class. Another lost assignments regularly, so much so that we started photocopying them before turning them in. Another ... It has been quite the experience.

My point is that tossing the majority of Teachers into one bucket called "competent" makes no sense. We parents do not want poor performing disorganized and/or emotionally burnt out teachers in the classrooms. Our kids deserve better and the unlucky kids who have poor parental support absolutely NEED more.

So how do you want to measure competent?
And how do we ensure only the moderate competents to highly competents are allowed in our classrooms?

LIFO Gone Thankfully

As you are aware, I am against tenure, Last In First Out, steps/lanes and all the other silly Union / State rules that prevent school administrators from keeping only the best most cost effective teachers in the classroom.

Now I am aware that teachers with seniority and tenure appreciate their high job security and relatively high wages and benefits. And that they want the Union and Liberal politicians to do everything in their power to protect this good deal. This makes sense from the point of view of a Teacher in this position.

However if you are a tax payer, a parent, a young gifted teacher or a student this is a terrible deal... Here are some of the reasons why:

•Some teachers are paid more than their performance justifies. They may be stuck in a school district where they are burnt out but still paid better than they can get else where. Do you really think they are giving 100%? Don't the kids deserve better?

•Raises are constrained for young energetic gifted teachers by the steps/lanes table. This would have driven me crazy when I was a young workaholic engineer. No wonder attracting young highly motivated talent is hard.

•The reality is that if any of the teachers are paid more than what they would command on the open market or if the district has to expend a lot of money to get rid of questionable performers, it means that fewer Teachers can be hired and class sizes are made larger.

•Other

The good news is that we have made one more common sense reform in MN. At least now the admin and teachers can negotiate this at the local level. However, the Ed MN President said one of the most disturbing things:

"It’s too early to tell what sort of an impact the state-level LIFO repeal will actually have on schools. But Specht suspects there’s not much of an appetite, on the local level, to use anything other than seniority.

“There are some locals that are probably going to just put seniority in their contract because it’s easy, it’s predictable,” she said. “We actually hear that a lot of superintendents and principals like it because sometimes having those tough conversations, it’s hard for them. We also believe that teacher development and evaluation law might play into this.”

The idea that our highly paid school administrators are too scared to address poor performing teachers and that the ED MN President is okay with it makes me SO ANGRY... Both of these groups swear that they are there to ensure that only the best teachers are in the classroom. And yet they both may support seniority policies because it is easier. Definitely some major league hypocrites.

This quote does give me hope though I am floored that this would be a new concept in the public schools... No wonder they have so many unresolved challenges.

"My guess would be that even though it’s no longer in state law, the status quo is still going to be the default unless there’s a specific effort to change it. And that is a battle that can often require a lot of political capital on the side of the district,” said Kency Nittler with the National Council on Teacher Quality.

Even so, she says that the repeal of LIFO legislation in Minnesota opens up a number of new possibilities for districts to factor criteria other than seniority into their layoff policies. For instance, some districts might look to negotiate a system that buckets teachers into groups based on their performance-evaluation ratings. Those with the lowest level of ratings may be let go first.

From there, any additional cuts might be based on seniority. In some policies she’s observed, districts have adopted a point system where teachers can get points for their performance evaluation. This portion often carries the most weight, but they can also get points for things like experience, leadership roles, or other measures of professional growth.

I think there are ways to make systems that are not purely 100 percent based on performance that are certainly much less quality blind than 'last in, first out,' but are perhaps palatable for the negotiating table,” Nittler said."

I mean really... What a creative new idea.... Layoff the poor performers first... What will they think of next...