Lisa Blais: The Struggle To Retain Seniority For Teachers

Thursday, April 25, 2013


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In our public schools, hiring and firing and classroom assignment practices have long been determined by seniority among other factors.

Just this week, the Cranston teachers’ union filed a lawsuit in Superior Court against the Cranston School Committee over the four year old change to Rhode Island’s Basic Education Plan. Why?

In our public schools, hiring, firing and classroom assignment practices have long been determined by the content contained in the teacher contracts hammered out between the teacher unions and local school committees. Those negotiations resulted in job fairs—sometimes referred to as jamborees—that in essence were auctions for classroom assignments based upon seniority and certification.

The problem with this long-standing practice is that seniority (time in the system) does not necessarily equate to highly effective teaching. Couple the job fairs with lackluster professional evaluations and we had a recipe for poor academic outcomes.


Following a vibrant period of educational reform efforts that pointed to this very issue, calling for using the teacher contracts as tools to implement best professional practices, doing away with seniority as a sole determinant factor while correlating professional evaluations to classroom assignments, the Board of Regents exercised its statutory authority in 2009 by approving the RI Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s (RIDE) amended Basic Education Plan (BEP).

The BEP sets education policy for elementary and secondary public schools. The new language contained in the amended BEP specifically provided for school districts to control and manage the staffing and classroom assignments among other human resource policies.

Here’s the rub. The BEP makes it clear that seniority can no longer be the sole determinant for classroom assignments.

Plenty of notice

School districts were given ample notice, indeed many educational stakeholders participated in creating the changes contained in the BEP. Public meetings were held. It was made clear that future contracts should not include seniority as a sole factor for staffing our classrooms. And so it would follow that job fairs would be shelved.

But, in 2009 South Kingstown and Portsmouth school districts filed suit over concerns that the teacher unions still expected to negotiate over seniority and classroom assignments.

Everyone seemed skittish. Why? Because common practice has been to bargain over every detail of how our schools operate which often times resulted in forfeiting management rights. Perhaps, it may have also been for the sake of maintaining labor peace. It seems clear that the teacher unions’ believe that those bargaining rights trump the statutory authority of the Regents (now a combined elementary, secondary and higher education board).

Fast forward to 2013

In February the RI Federation of Teachers lambasted the Commissioner of Education claiming that “she” was overstepping her authority. This came in response to a letter that the Commissioner sent out to all school districts clarifying the amended BEP and the consequences for failure to abide by those amendments. Regardless of the unions’ opinion and, in general, labor’s propensity to personalize or segregate an individual or individuals in their quest to oppose public policy issues, this policy is the result of a board decision. This policy is four years old. In the current General Assembly session, the teacher unions have repeatedly attempted to lockdown the use of seniority in law. And, here we are in April and just a couple of days ago the teacher union representing Cranston teachers filed a lawsuit as that school district’s school committee was considering implementing the BEP’s human resource policies.


In fairness, and easy to write in hindsight, it may have been in everyone’s best interest if—in 2009—the Commissioner, on behalf of RIDE, or the Regents had just clearly stated that ‘school committees no longer have to collectively bargain over hiring, firing and classroom assignments’.

Students. Remember them?

One thing is for sure in RI, we are good at keeping educational issues mired in conflict. No matter that time marches on, kids move from one grade level to the next regardless of their academic readiness or that our professional, highly effective teachers work next to “not so” professional, highly effective teachers. Or, that some school committees historically negotiated away their management rights - the management rights that are contained in state law. When will we finally come to grips with the fact that taxpayers pay for our public schools, expect nothing less than the best for our kids, and that, oh yes, it is supposed to be about our kids. 

Lisa Blais is a board member of OSTPA, a taxpayer advocacy organization in Rhode Island.

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