House passes bill changing teacher seniority law

By T.W. Budig, ECM Capitol Reporter

Legislation cracking the seniority-driven retention of teachers passed the House Thursday, Feb. 16 on a 68 to 61 vote.

Rep. Branden Petersen, R-Andover, heard Democrats argue that his education legislation wasn’t ready, needed fixing. But no one arose on the House floor to argue that the teacher seniority system should be untouchable.

Indeed, former chairman of the House education committee, Rep. Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul, expressed regret over the a perceived ducking of the issue by some union officials.

“There is a will to do something in the body (the House) on this issue this year,” Mariani said.

“Unfortunately, we’re going to play out the partisan divided,” Mariani said of not reaching consensus on the legislation.

Rep. John Benson, DFL-Minnetonka, a retired teacher, said he had taken votes opposed by Education Minnesota, the teachers’ union, before and expressed a willingness to do so again.

But he predicted that Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton would veto Petersen’s bill.

For his part, Petersen defended the work product, saying the bill had more than five hours of committee hearing time and that he expected to meet with the governor to discuss the bill — already met once, he explained.

“The privacy issue is canard,” Petersen said of objections to the bill on data privacy grounds.

House Education Reform Committee Chairwoman Sondra Erickson, R-Princeton, said the legislation mirrored a bill she worked on last year.

“Members, we are ready for true reform,” Erickson said.

A Senate version of Petersen’s bill has advanced through committee.

But one Minneapolis Democrat expressed less concern over the escape of private data than that a teacher who loses seniority to another  — a teacher they believe is no better than they — cannot find out exactly what made the other teacher apparently superior.

“That brings out the lawyers,” said Rep. Jim Davnie, DFL-Minneapolis.

Under Petersen’s bill, school boards will be able to weigh skill evaluations and other factors, not just check the seniority list, in deciding which teacher gets laid-off during a budget crunch.

And seniority alone would no longer be the sole factor in calling teachers back.

Education Minnesota President Tom Dooher in a statement expressed disappointment over the passage of the bill.

As their right under current law, school districts and teachers can negotiate their own layoff procedures and about 40 percent of Minnesota school districts have with their teachers, Dooher said.

“It’s disappointing the House has passed this bill, which does nothing to address the real challenges facing our schools,” he said. “But it will make it easier for districts to shed seasoned teachers for their less-experienced, less-expensive colleagues. This is not about student learning, it’s about budget cutting.”

Still, Petersen’s bill was amended on the House floor by Rep. Greg Davids, R-Preston, to state that nothing in the bill permits school boards to use teacher pay as a basis for discharge or demotion.

None of those games, Davids said.

Rep, Kate Knuth, DFL-New Brighton, rose in support of Petersen’s bill, speaking of once failing a university test only to hear her instructor explain that it only matters to them the subject be mastered by end of the course.

She applied the same precept to Petersen’s bill, she said.

House Speaker Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove, expressed satisfaction over the bill’s passage.

“Seniority privilege should not trump student achievement,” Zellers said in a statement.

“Today decisions about who to fire, layoff and even promote are based solely on seniority and ignore teacher effectiveness,” he said. “The Minnesota House today approved legislation that removes this rigid and outdated state law.”