School District Must Not Abuse Layoffs

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The state Legislature’s effort to gut teachers’ job protections by micro-managing school districts has cast school districts across the state into thickets of cat-claw.

Witness the tangle the Payson School Board now must struggle with as it seeks to balance fairness, budgets and student needs.

The most painful wounds trace back to the Legislature’s heavy-handed dictation of school district polices — including the precise credentials needed to enter the classroom, the timing of layoffs and hires and the arrogant and damaging elimination of tenure and seniority when making layoff decisions.

But some of Payson Unified School District’s wounds appear self-inflicted, with a subjective set of criteria that sometimes seemed aimed more at individuals than qualifications. Subsequent hires and staff shufflings at least gave the appearance of favoritism.

The district laid off six teachers last year, forced to make the cuts by a combination of shrinking legislative support for schools statewide and the district’s dwindling enrollment, a reflection of the long, economic struggles of Rim Country.

The state requires districts to notify teachers whether they’ll get a contract for the following year by a certain date. Unfortunately, the state often hasn’t told the school districts what they’ll have to spend until some point after that date.

As a result, the layoff process often forces the district to simply guess at its year-end balance and level of state support for the upcoming year. Moreover, a district struggling with declining enrollment must guess at whether that trend will continue.

Layoffs can inflict terrible damage on morale.

But if employees feel like that layoff process has been manipulated and abused to settle scores, punish dissidents or shortcut the normal firing process — it does far worse damage.

Normally, businesses forced to resort to layoffs can avoid that compounded trauma by establishing fair, open, agreed-upon criteria. One good rule is: Last hired, first fired. This prevents the employer from manipulating the layoff process to get rid of higher paid workers nearing retirement. It also prevents new administrators from getting rid of employees they didn’t hire and don’t feel as committed to. Finally, that rule honors the service offered by the senior employees.

But the Legislature decided instead to dictate policy to all the school districts in the state. Lawmakers could have left the process to local school boards. Instead, lawmakers forbid school boards from considering seniority or tenure in layoff decisions — or in rehiring decisions.

This created the tangle in which the Payson School Board now seems enmeshed.

The district laid off six teachers last fall, but since then has hired more people than it laid off. In some cases, the qualifications of the new people hired seemed little different from the people laid off. The district compounded the impact of the seemingly arbitrary layoff process by promoting or rehiring relatives of administrators or board members.

We hope that newly hired superintendent Ron Hitchcock can help sort out a potentially morale-damaging difficulty. The district must establish fair, open and transparent criteria when it comes to future layoffs. The district should also find a way to rehire teachers laid off if a position opens due to the departure of a teacher with the same credentials after the date of the layoffs.

The district makes a grave mistake when it uses the Reduction in Force system as an end-run around legitimate teacher job protection. Teachers need such protections to do their jobs, given the possibilities of assaults on their intellectual integrity — whether it’s from parents who don’t believe in evolution or students who make up stories. The district does need a fair, rigorous system to get rid of bad teachers — but using layoffs to achieve that end by the back door will fatally damage teacher morale.

So we hope the current administration will show more sensitivity to even the appearance of favoritism, nepotism and score-settling when making these decisions.

And we hope the supposedly conservative Legislature will stop micro-managing districts and offer the same respect to local government they say they can’t get from the federal government.

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