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Proposed MMSD layoff rules would minimize teacher seniority, focus on culturally responsive practices

Doyle Building 073020 02-08032020124815 (copy) (copy)

The Madison Metropolitan School District offices at the Doyle Building are pictured on July 30, 2020.

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A slate of controversial proposed changes to teacher layoff rules in the Madison Metropolitan School District was back in front of the School Board Monday night.

District administration has proposed making seniority just 10% of the decision of who to lay off, a significant change from the current system that relies entirely on seniority. The proposal would also add a second layoff notice window in addition to the end-of-school-year notice currently permitted, allowing the district to lay off teachers in November if enrollment is lower than anticipated.

Madison Teachers Inc. has expressed concern about the proposal, specifically mentioning the potential subjectivity of the other 90% of the layoff decision under the proposed guide. District officials maintain that it is a key part of a broader strategy aimed at recruiting and retaining more teachers of color, who are more likely to be recent hires.

A vote on the proposed changes is expected at the board's March 22 meeting.

“This isn’t about seniority," MMSD Superintendent Carlton Jenkins said. "This is about creating an excellent learning environment for our children and we want the best person, if it’s one year or 50 years, to be there in front of our children.”

MMSD chief of human resources Deirdre Hargrove-Krieghoff said the current language "has come to serve as a structure of racial inequity," and that the new criteria "best balanced the objective and subjective" measures.

The proposal follows months of discussion by the Handbook Committee, which includes MTI leaders. Board members directed district leadership to continue those conversations in July, when the changes were last discussed, asking them to seek consensus with MTI and staff representatives.

The new system would create a guide with four other weighted components to layoff decisions on top of seniority: culturally responsive practices, student learning objectives, additional language proficiency and academic credentials/certifications. The reassignment system would include the same criteria except for the student learning objectives set.

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MTI and staff who submitted written input Monday night are concerned there is too much subjectivity in those criteria.

“MTI is fully supportive of efforts to attract and retain teaching staff who more accurate(ly) reflect our student population, however, we are concerned that this unilateral proposal is about management discretion,” the union wrote to its members, encouraging them to submit written testimony against the proposal. “MTI continues to hope that there can be true collaboration to jointly hear from staff of color, both new and veteran, about making this effort more authentic.”

The district has long struggled to make its staff demographics reflective of its student body. While there has been slight improvement in recent years, white people make up a much larger proportion of the staff than the student body.

The current policy in the Employee Handbook, which is entirely based on seniority, is a carryover from the days of collective bargaining, which was quashed by Act 10 in 2011. The district and MTI collaboratively created the handbook after the last bargaining agreement expired, with the seniority provision included.

The district is able to unilaterally make the changes, however, with approval from the School Board.

Multiple board members indicated they were open to the changes Monday night.

“We know that seniority benefits white folks,” board member Ali Muldrow said. “We know that the beneficiaries of the way we’ve done things historically have been white.”

One-hundred-and-seventeen people submitted written input asking the district to collaborate with MTI on any changes, and one person submitted written support of the changes de-emphasizing seniority.

Board member Nicki Vander Meulen strongly criticized the proposal, with concerns about the extra layoff window and bias from administrators toward staff with disabilities.

“This goes way too far,” she said.

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District chief financial officer Kelly Ruppel said the additional layoff window would be used only in extreme circumstances, giving the board more options in the fall if there was a surprising significant change after the board had voted on a preliminary budget in June but before the final budget vote in October.

“We do know we’re living in extraordinary times and it’s just an extra effort to support the board and the board’s work,” Ruppel said.

MTI also questioned the timing of the proposal returning to the board, with school buildings set to reopen for kindergarten Tuesday — a plan MTI opposed.

“Making this purposeful and acrimonious announcement to give management full control over the layoff selection process at this time will only exacerbate the anxiety, stress, and frustration employees are experiencing,” MTI wrote.

Demographic disparities

Research has shown having teachers of color benefits not only students of color but all students.

White staff members are more likely to have worked in the district for longer than their peers of color. If teachers need to be shifted among schools and the new teachers bear the brunt of that movement, that would mean staff of color are more likely to be moved, which district leaders say can create a bad work environment.

District numbers presented Monday show that Black and brown staff members make up 23% of staff in their first three years in the district, but just 15% of staff that have three or more years of experience here. That means that they would be more likely to be reassigned under the existing surplus process or laid off if necessary.

Excluding retirements, Black and Latinx staff have also mostly had higher turnover rates in recent years compared to their white counterparts. The turnover data does not show a connection between those higher turnover rates and the surplus and layoff rules that would be changed under the proposal.

The district believes that making seniority only one of five considerations in layoff and surplus decisions will have a positive effect on retaining newly hired staff. Without better retention, more diverse hiring would have little effect on the overall demographics of the district’s staff.

“We have to ensure that every aspect of our work is supporting the retention of our staff of color in order to realize breakthrough gains we want to see,” Hargrove-Krieghoff said.

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MTI maintains that the new criteria are too subjective and could hurt retention of those same staff members.

“We are sincerely concerned that this proposal will undermine the District's ability to recruit and retain top quality teachers,” MTI wrote.

What’s in the proposed layoff guide?

The proposed layoff rules would grade teachers in five categories on a four-point scale for each of the five criteria when layoffs were required.

“The teacher in the affected instructional level, grade level or subject area with the lowest score will be selected for layoff,” the proposed language states.

The most weight, at 40%, would be given to culturally responsive practices. Teachers could receive one of four ratings: negative/harmful impact on learning, low impact on learning, high impact on learning or accelerated impact on learning.

Examples from the lowest ranking include a staff member who “cannot distinguish the systems and beliefs that may lead to inequitable outcomes for students,” like taking a color-blind approach or having low expectations and sympathy for low-income students or students of color.

On the other end of the layoff guide, a teacher who “engages students of color, especially Black students in learning and classroom community” and “actively seeks out opportunities to uncover implicit biases and takes action to ensure equitable learning environments for all,” among other items in the list, would rate highly.

The student learning objective portion would be given a weight of 30% in decision-making. That criterion is broken into subcategories of goal setting, summative assessment, formative assessment/progress monitoring, reflection and adjustment of practice and outcomes and reflection.

The other three criteria would each receive a 10% weight, with employees who are fluent in several languages rewarded in the additional language proficiency category, for example. In seniority, teachers with zero to three years of experience would be in the lowest ranking, three to five years in the second-lowest, five to 10 years in the second highest and more than 10 years in the highest.

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